China gloats of ‘important breakthrough’ in mysterious space mission

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On September 4, the spacecraft was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China and returned back to Earth after two days in orbit. But experts have raised concerns over the secretive space mission and what it did while in space.

Not much is known about the spacecraft and no visuals have yet been released, a move differing from other Chinese high-profile space missions.

In a brief report, published by the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency, provided a glimpse into the mysterious space mission.

They wrote: “The successful flight marked the country’s important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research and is expected to offer convenient and low-cost round-trip transport for the peaceful use of space.”

However, Chinese authorities have not revealed much about the short excursion or what technologies were being tested.

The exact launch and landing times were not revealed nor has the landing site been reported, although it is believed to be the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China.

A military spokesperson told the South China Morning Post: “There are many firsts in this launch.

“The spacecraft is new, the launch method is also different.

“That’s why we need to make sure there is extra security.”

According to the publication, staff and visitors to the launch site were told not to film the launch or discuss it online.

Although there was no official announcement prior to the launch, it has been widely reported that China was working on such technology.

Three years ago, China vowed to launch a space vessel in 2020 that “will fly into the sky like an aircraft” and be reusable, the BBC reported.

A reusable spacecraft would be a first as traditional one-off spacecraft is rendered useless following a single mission.

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Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, believes the mission was likely to test out the vehicle’s systems such as power, temperature, stability and to prove it could re-enter and land correctly.

He warned the secrecy behind the launch is because it is a military project.

Mr McDowell said: “The secrecy, I am sure, is just because it is a military project.

“China was way behind in space but has been gearing up its space programme on all fronts and is now catching up fast.

“The spacecraft launch is just another reflection of that.”

The spacecraft could be used to launch and repair satellites, survey the Earth and take astronauts and goods to and from orbit.

Although details of the spacecraft’s size and shape still remain unclear, it is believed to be an unmanned spaceplane similar to the US Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

If China has successfully launched a rocket into orbit, the Communist nation would become the third country to have done so following the US and the former Soviet Union.

Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy academic at the University of Leicester, said: “It is reasonable to assume that what’s being tested has some military applications, probably new satellite equipment and spying technologies.

“We’ll have to wait and see how many future flights like this China may conduct to see whether it will match the scale of X-37B.”

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