China on Friday launched a reusable spacecraft that appears to be Beijing’s answer to the secretive U.S. X-37 space plane.
The spacecraft was fired atop a Long March-2F booster from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China on Friday afternoon, according to a statement posted online by a state-run space contractor.
According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., a major space conglomerate, the robotic spacecraft will remain in orbit for an unspecified period in order to monitor its reusable technologies. The statement, reported by Chinese state media, said the tests are intended to advance China’s “peaceful exploration of space,” before returning to Earth.
No other details were disclosed and there were no photographs of the craft or the liftoff.
The spacecraft could be similar to the Air Force X-37B space plane that has conducted six classified missions and is believed to be a key element of the new Space Force’s capabilities for space defense and warfare.
The X-37B, built by Boeing, is capable of launching small satellites.
Michael Listner, a space expert with the Space Law and Policy Solutions, a think tank, said despite the lack of photos suggest the Chinese space plane closely resembles the X-37B, the Air Force space plane.
“All in all, this spacecraft will likely mimic the operation of the X-37B in that it will publicly be touted as a test bed for experimental technologies and promote the party line of peaceful use of outer space,” Mr. Listner said.
But, he added, the Chinese plane “will also have a classified national security side.”
Mr. Listner noted that the spacecraft is being operated under by China’s civilian space agency, which has extensive ties to the Chinese military.
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said last year that maneuvering satellites with robotic arms are a growing threat in space.
“If that satellite nestles up against yours, then you have the ability to damage a sensor,” Gen. Ashley said at a Colorado forum. “You can cut lines. You, in fact, could disable that with a co-orbital satellite.”
The Communist Party newspaper Global Times stated that the conglomerate’s Xian Aerospace Propulsion Institute had reported in March that the next Long March 2F would involve an important experimental mission as part of future manned space programs and next-generation aerospace technologies.
The newspaper said China’s reusable spacecraft will have a range of applications, including space tourism, astronaut transports and resupplying space stations, as well as placing satellites in orbit at a lower cost.
The Chinese military is in charge of China’s space programs, and the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military reveals that Beijing is rapidly building up it ability to fight wars in space.
“The PRC continues to strengthen its military space capabilities, despite its public stance against the weaponization of space,” the report said.
“The PLA continues to acquire and develop a range of counterspace capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots, as well as expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counterspace actions,” the report said.
The orbiting space robots are small, maneuvering satellites that can grab or crush orbiting satellites.
The Chinese military also is investing heavily in space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite communication, satellite navigation, and meteorology, as well as human spaceflight and robotic space exploration, the report noted.
Beijing also is planning to deploy a space station by 2022 to host foreign payloads and astronauts.
“There’s a lot of interest in reusable vehicles and right now we’ve gained a lot of information in the decade we’ve been operating that system,” said Rand Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which oversees the X-37B.
Mr. Walden told a forum last month hosted by the Mitchell Institute that his office is working with the Pentagon on possible future defense payloads for the spacecraft.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.
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