China says it has successfully launched a “reusable experimental spacecraft” under increased levels of secrecy. Space industry watchers believe it to be some sort of unmanned space plane similar to thein recent years.
A short statement from China’s state-run Xinhua media outlet announced the launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Friday.
“After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space,” the statement reads.
The mission was conducted under a veil of extra secrecy, with no official launch photos or even the time of launch made public.
“That leads one to think this is not only a space plane, it’s a military space plane,” said Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell on a European Space Agency sponsored Zoom conference Friday.
The American X-37B has made autonomous flights lasting over two years. It’s not clear how long this new Chinese spacecraft will stay in orbit.
Satellite watcher Michael Thompson noted that if it’s meant to be a short mission, it could come back to Earth in less than 24 hours:
We’ll update this story once we have more information about the craft or its flight.