Mystery China Space Vehicle Returns To Earth

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Experimental Chinese reusable space vehicle returns to Earth after 276-day mission for vehicle thought similar to US Space Force’s X-37B

China has successfully returned an experimental reusable spacecraft to its launch base in the northwest part of the country after 276 days in orbit, according to official state media.

The uncrewed mission led by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) ended on schedule on Monday at the Jiuquan launch centre in the Gobi Desert, reports said.

No details were given about the highly secretive mission, and no images of the craft have been released.

But the vehicle in question is thought to be similar to the US Space Force’s X-37B, an unmanned winged plane-type vehicle that resembles a small space shuttle and is also designed to spend lengthy periods in orbit.

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US Space Force X-37B returns to Earth on 12 November, 2022. Image credit: Boeing

Reusable craft

CASC said the mission’s success marked an “important breakthrough” in China’s research on reusable spacecraft technologies.

It added that such technologies would “provide more convenient and affordable round-trip methods for the peaceful use of space in the future”.

The vehicle launched from the Jiuquan centre aboard a Long March 2F rocket on 5 August.

The longest mission of the US’ Boeing-built X-37B to date isa 908-day mission that ended in November 2022.

Space taxi

The craft began as a NASA effort to develop a crewed space taxi for the International Space Shuttle, but NASA terminated that programme in 2004 and transferred the effort to the Department of Defence, which continued development of an unmanned system.

The two flightworthy X-37B vehicles have made a total of six flights since 2010 for a total of more than 10 years in space.