A Long March 2F rocket, which launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre yesterday, is sending a “reusable test spacecraft” into low Earth orbit, according to a report from Chinese language state media Xinhua.
The craft’s test includes “technical verification of reusable and on-orbit services as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space”, the report states.
No photos or related operations of the launch have been released, but it is speculated that the vehicle being tested is a spaceplane. The Long March 2F can carry approximately eight metric tons to low Earth orbit, which could suggest it is of a similar size to the US Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane.
Another secretive Chinese spacecraft was launched in September 202, and stayed in orbit for two days before landing in China. It is unclear whether this new vehicle is the same.
China seems to be making moves to develop its reusable spacecraft capabilities; a space “white paper” released by China’s State Council Information Office in January this year stated that the country would, “continue to strengthen research into key technologies for reusable space transport systems, and conduct test flights accordingly.”
It continued: “In response to the growing need for regular launches, China will develop new rocket engines, combined cycle propulsion, and upper stage technologies to improve its capacity to enter and return from space, and make space entry and exit more efficient.”
China is also developing its own spaceplane called Tengyun, through the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC).
“Unlike rocket recycling adopted by SpaceX, the spaceplane can take off from an ordinary airport to transport spacecraft into orbit. It will bring about a revolution for future space transportation,” CASIC’s Zhang Hongwen told China Central Television in 2018.