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China succeeds in launching and landing a reusable space vehicle

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The successful test of the spacecraft, a possible competitor to the US X-37B, represents a huge advance in the Beijing space program

China has launched, and managed to land back, a mysterious reusable experimental space vehicle in a two-day mission. The data that the state media have released are very scarce, and little is known about the characteristics of the ship or the activities it carried out during its trip or that it will undertake in the future. But the success of the test represents a huge step forward for the world’s second power’s ambitious space program and its goal of launching manned missions into space.

The vehicle, whose name is not even known, was launched on Friday the 4th, powered by a Long March 2F rocket and, after orbiting the Earth, successfully returned to the Jiuquan space base, in the Gobi desert, this Sunday. .

According to a concise dispatch from the state-run Xinhua news agency reporting the landing, the success of the mission represents a “significant advance in research on reusable spacecraft.” The development of the vehicle will allow, Xinhua notes, “to offer transportation for convenient and low-cost round trips.” He also stresses that the spacecraft will make “peaceful” use of space.

Despite these guarantees, the entire mission has been shrouded in secrecy. Unlike other launches in the Chinese space program, it was not announced in the days before: the only clues that anything was brewing were sudden restrictions on airspace. An official document quoted by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post and which has circulated on Chinese social networks, demanded that Jiuquan staff and visitors to the base not record the launch or mention it on the internet. “All units must reinforce the training of personnel on security issues, and personnel management, during missions, to ensure that there is no leakage of secrets.”

No images of the vehicle or its characteristics have been released, although the secrecy that surrounds it has fueled speculation that it may want to rival the US X-37B Experimental Orbital Vehicle: an unmanned spacecraft that works like a smaller version. of the space shuttles that Washington retired in the last decade.

The X-37B, like its predecessors, launches vertically mounted on a rocket, and lands horizontally, like a conventional aircraft. So far, that device has completed five secret missions, including one that has kept it in orbit for 730 days between 2017 and 2019, and develops a sixth. It has never been disclosed what kind of activities it has developed in space, which has led to speculation about a possible military use, either for espionage or for weapons testing. Officially, the US Air Force says it is used to experiment with a range of advanced technologies, from propulsion to materials for use in space.

Already in 2017, China had confirmed that it was developing a reusable space vehicle, capable of landing on a runway and that could be used to transport crews.

Then, Chen Hongbo, from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told the official media that this space agency was working on a vehicle “capable of flying like an airplane” that could transport cargo or crews into space and return to the ground. According to it, that vehicle would be ready in 2020 and would be easier to maintain than a system of traditional single-use ships. It would also reduce launch costs and increase their frequency, allowing more people to have access to travel to outer space.

The development of a vehicle capable of transporting cargo or personnel into space is particularly important for the Chinese space program, which is prohibited by US law from collaborating with NASA of the first power. Among its projects, it expects to complete in the coming decade a space station, Tiangong, which will be in orbit about 380 kilometers from Earth. This summer it launched a mission to Mars, in direct competition with the US that has sent the exploration vehicle Perserverance to the red planet.

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