A commercial satellite photo may reveal a new Chinese space plane just moments after it landed at a remote site on the western side of China.
The photo, which is too low resolution to be conclusive, was snapped by the San Francisco-based company Planet. It shows what could be the classified Chinese spacecraft on a long runway, along with several support vehicles lined up nearby.
Terse statements by China's official Xinhua news agency said only that a Long March 2F rocket had carried a "reusable experimental spacecraft" into orbit and that the launch and landing were successful. The landing took place on Sept. 6 at almost the exact time the photo was snapped by the passing satellite.
"I'm reading a lot into a few little dots," admits Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who diligently tracks spacecraft and satellites. But, he says, the photo, combined with other circumstantial evidence, such as the new spaceship's orbital path, strongly suggests that China has launched and landed a small, uncrewed, space-shuttle-like vehicle. "The information sort of all hangs together now that this was a test of something, probably a space plane, that made a winged reentry and landed on the runway," he says.
The new spaceship took off on Sept. 4 under unusually heavy secrecy compared with other recent Chinese space missions.
"They didn't give a launch time. They didn't give any more details," McDowell says. The U.S. military picked up the new spacecraft on its tracking network, and McDowell and others quickly plotted its orbit. When they did so, they found that China's new craft passed over a secretive military facility: an area called Lop Nur where China once tested its nuclear weapons.
In 2016, China constructed an enormous 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) runway at the site. The new spacecraft's orbit passed directly over the runway, which was aligned with its path.
On Sept. 6, China announced that the spacecraft had returned to a "scheduled landing site."
"The ground track around the time of landing suggested that it might have landed at this mysterious new air base," McDowell says.
Sure enough, McDowell found that the spacecraft would have been able to land on the runway at around 10 a.m. local time (2 a.m. UTC). The fuzzy Planet image, snapped at 10:11 a.m. local time, would have been taken just moments after such a landing.
Ground track of Chinese reusable spacecraft passes over airbase near Lop Nor nuclear test site at Sep 6 0155 UTC, consistent with probable landing time. pic.twitter.com/resjPEb6Qr— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) September 6, 2020
The new spacecraft is likely much smaller than the U.S.'s space shuttle, which launched using rockets and then glided back to Earth. Instead, McDowell and others think the new Chinese vehicle probably resembles a robotic spacecraft called the X-37B. The X-37B has been operated by the U.S. Air Force for about a decade.
So why might China now be getting into space planes?
"It's a great question," says Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, which advocates for the peaceful use of space. "We're not even really sure why the U.S. military is pursuing a space plane."
The U.S. X-37B program remains highly classified. Weeden says he believes it is being used to test new sensors and systems for the military.
"If you can fly some of that technology in space, let's say in the payload of a reusable space plane, that could give you a better feel for how it might react [once it's in orbit for good]," Weeden says. Other possibilities include the ability to launch satellites quickly and to test robotic systems for autonomous maneuvers and landings.
McDowell says that space planes, which reenter Earth's atmosphere at many times the speed of sound, could also potentially aid the development of hypersonic weapons. But he believes China's motivation could be as simple as wanting to duplicate U.S. military capabilities.
" 'If the Americans have one of those, there's got to be a good reason for it, so we better get one too,' " he says. Such thinking drove the Soviet Union to develop a copy of the U.S. space shuttle in the 1980s, though it never got much use.
The landing of this space plane — or whatever it was — is just the latest success for China. It recently completed its own satellite navigation system, and it has a robotic mission going to Mars and several probes on the moon.
"China is firing on all thrusters in space," McDowell says. "I think that this is just one more reflection of that."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
China's military appears to have successfully tested a new spacecraft. Last week's mission was shrouded in secrecy. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, there are some clues about what China sent into space and why.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Last Friday, a Chinese rocket took off carrying a mysterious payload. A terse statement on state media said it was, quote, "a reusable experimental spacecraft."
JONATHAN MCDOWELL: But they didn't give a launch time. They don't give any more details - no real official footage of the launch.
BRUMFIEL: Jonathan McDowell is an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian, who specializes in tracking satellites and spacecraft orbiting the Earth. When he plotted the course of China's new craft, he found that it passed over a secretive military facility, an area called Lop Nur where China once tested its nuclear weapons.
MCDOWELL: There's an air base there, which has a big runway that's aligned exactly in the direction of the orbit of the spacecraft.
BRUMFIEL: On Sunday, China announced its new spacecraft had landed. Sure enough, fuzzy satellite images snapped by a commercial company called Planet seemed to show activity on the giant runway right at the moment the landing would have occurred. McDowell says that the evidence is circumstantial, but he believes China has just tested a space plane. Think of it as a little space shuttle, a craft with wings, probably too small to carry people that took off on a rocket and coasted back to Earth.
MCDOWELL: The information sort of all hangs together now that this was a test of something, probably a space plane, that made a winged reentry and landed on the runway at Lop Nur.
BRUMFIEL: The U.S. Air Force has a similar spacecraft called the X-37B. It's been launching since 2010. So if that's what China tested, why now?
BRIAN WEEDEN: It's a great question. We're not even really sure why the United States military is pursuing a space plane like it's been doing for the last decade or so.
MCDOWELL: Brian Weeden studies space security issues with the Secure World Foundation. The U.S. X-37B program remains highly classified. Weeden says he believes it's being used to test new sensors and systems for the military.
WEEDEN: Think about it. If you're building a brand-new satellite and you've got a lot of fancy new technology that's never been in space before, that's potentially risky. But if you can fly some of that technology in space, let's say, in the payload bay of a reusable space plane, that could allow you to get a better feel for how it might react.
BRUMFIEL: McDowell says that space planes, which travel many times the speed of sound, could also potentially help with the development of so-called hypersonic weapons. But, honestly, he thinks China could just be copying the U.S.
MCDOWELL: If the Americans have one of those, there must be a good reason for it. So we better get one, too.
BRUMFIEL: The landing of the space plane or whatever it was is just the latest success for China. McDowell says it recently completed its own satellite navigation system. It has a robotic mission going to Mars and several probes on the moon.
MCDOWELL: China is firing on all thrusters in space and just really increasing its level of involvement and capabilities. And I think that this is just one more reflection of that.
BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.