China has launched a mysterious reusable space shuttle into orbit on top of a massive Long March 2F rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the country.
China's state news website Xinhua said the launch was a success. “The test spacecraft will return to the established internal landing site after a period in which it will orbit, during which time the technical validation will be performed as planned,” the report said. .
It is not yet clear what the space shuttle is designed to do, probably a project of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) 's main space contractor. Some experts suggest that it could be a space plane, reminiscent of the US secret X-37B project, which recently completed its sixth mission into orbit.
“China has been looking at several different concepts for space planes for years,” Andrew Jones, an independent reporter specializing in space programs in China, told The Verge. China does not provide much details about its launches, so there has been little information leaked leading to this mission. Jones noted that speculation about a particular type of flight has increased after China made changes to its Long March 2F missile launch tower at China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. “So the idea was: they change the top of the launch tower to accommodate something with a larger diameter,” says Jones. In addition, a mission rumor appeared on social media earlier this year, he says.
In 2017, China announced plans to test a reusable space plane in 2020, according to SpaceNews. Apparently, modification works have been added to the launch tower, allowing larger payloads to be launched using the Long March 2F missile. Reports in 2017 also claimed that such a reusable spacecraft would be designed to carry both crew and payloads, according to SpaceNews.