China celebrates successful launch and landing of secretive reusable spacecraft

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China is celebrating the successful launch and return of a reusable spacecraft which reportedly orbited Earth for two days before safely returning to the ground.

The launch and landing “marked an important breakthrough in my country’s technology research on reusable spacecraft”, said the government-run Xinhua news agency.

There are very few details available about the spacecraft itself, but reports from independent media in China suggest it is a spaceplane similar to the US X-37B orbital test vehicle.

The X-37B is a reusable and robotic spaceplane which has been tested by the US Air Force by being launched on a rocket and is then capable of gliding back to Earth once it exits orbits.

It has flown four classified missions carrying secretive payloads during long-duration orbits for the US military.

Xinhua news agency described this weekend’s mission as advancing China’s “peaceful use of space”.

Beijing is typically secretive about its launches, but the spacecraft tested this weekend is especially mysterious – there are no official photographs or computer images of the spacecraft, and it was not even named by Xinhua.

According to the independent South China Morning Post, an official memo regarding the launch which circulated on social media warned people at the launch site not to film the take-off or discuss it online.

A military source told the newspaper that the document was authentic and explained it was because the spacecraft was new and the launch method was different from usual.

This source declined to explain much about the launch, but provided the comparison with the X-37B spaceplane.

The launch follows China joining the search for signs of life on Mars by sending a rover towards the red planet.

Tianwen-1, which means “quest for heavenly truth”, took off successfully from Hainan Island off the south coast of China back in July.

The rover will take seven months to reach the red planet and plans to search for underground water and evidence of possible ancient life forms.

The tandem spacecraft – with both an orbiter and a rover – is expected to enter Mars’ orbit in February and is aiming for a landing site on Utopia Planitia. – skynews.co.uk

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