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China lands its secretive space plane after 9 months in orbit

small white and black space plane on a runwayThe X-37B space plane returns from a test flight. China’s space plane is not pictured.

Staff Sgt. Adam Shanks/US Space Force

  • China landed its mysterious reusable space plane after nine months in Earth’s orbit. 
  • Chinese state news agency Xinhua hailed the 276-day flight as a “success” and an “important breakthrough.”
  • The space plane launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in August 2022.

China’s mysterious reusable space plane landed on Monday, after 276 days in Earth’s orbit.

The nine-month mission was the longest yet for the new space plane. It had flown to orbit once before, for just two days, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist who specializes in China’s space program.

Though the recent flight was long, China’s statements about the space plane have been short, with no details about the objectives of the flight, the specifications of the spacecraft, or the maneuvers it performed in orbit.

“The success of the experiment marks an important breakthrough in China’s research on reusable spacecraft technologies, which will provide more convenient and affordable round-trip methods for the peaceful use of space in the future,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua said in a brief announcement on Monday. 

The space plane’s maker, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), reshared the Xinhua statement on the social media platform Weixin.

Xinhua reported that the “experimental” spacecraft touched down at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. However, orbital tracking data and satellite imagery suggest that the landing occurred at the Lop Nur military base in the neighboring province of Xinjiang, to the west, Jones reported.

A Long March-4C rocket carrying a new remote sensing satellite of the Yaogan-34 series blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, Nov. 15, 2022.A Long March-4C rocket blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.

Wang Jiangbo/Xinhua via Getty Images

Reusable space planes are nothing new. NASA’s Space Shuttles are perhaps the most famous example. More recently, billionaire Richard Branson flew to orbit aboard a Virgin Galactic space plane.

In the absence of photos or details from China, multiple news outlets have suggested that the Chinese space plane may resemble the X-37B space plane developed by Boeing for the US military.

That vehicle has flown six times, with its longest mission lasting nearly three years to test new hardware and run NASA experiments.

three people in puffy white protective suits approach a small white and black space plane on a runwayThe X-37B space plane returns from its sixth flight.

Staff Sgt. Adam Shanks/US Space Force

The Chinese space plane took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in August 2022 and in October mysteriously ejected something into orbit, according to Space.com.

Overall, China has been ramping up its space presence over the last decade, with a series of moon missions, its own space station in Earth’s orbit, and a landmark Mars mission that featured an orbiter, a lander, and a rover — the first-ever Martian trifecta.

Read the original article on Business Insider