China’s Reusable Satellite Experiment

China, on Friday, launched a space plane into orbit. The launch took place on board the Long March 2F. The payload is called a Reusable Experimental Spacecraft.

  1. China carries out secretive launch of ‘reusable experimental spacecraft’ – Andrew Jones, Space News, September 4, 2020
  2. China just launched a ‘reusable test spacecraft’ — possibly a spaceplane – Loren Grush, The Verge, September 4, 2020

I saw little to poor coverage of the mission in Indian media. I wanted to maintain a record here for my personal memory.

The launch was very secretive. There were movements that were caught before the launch by a group of China watchers that alluded to a launch on Friday.

My interest was piqued when Cosmic Penguin tweeted that two Chinese ships were en route to two spots on Earth. One was the northern Arabian Sea and another was off the coast of Uruguay. He tweeted this:

They were following the movement of two tracking ships, Yuan Wang 6 and Yuan Wang 3. The Yuan Wang 3 was of interest to me since it seems to be moving towards the northern Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan. Cosmic Penguin linked this to a possible launch from the Jiuquan Space Center. He also referenced Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs) that were posted online to suggest a launch time of 6 AM UTC.

Andrew Jones who covers China for Space News shared this picture on Twitter based on date from Europe’s Sentinel satellites. This seemed to show that a Long March 2F was scheduled for lift-off from Jiuquan.

Long March 2F is a human spaceflight rated launch vehicle that was previously used by China to launch Shenzou and Tiangong, China’s human space vehicles. Hence, there was a lot of interest and curiosity about the launch.

The launch actually happened an hour after NOTAM period ended. China has been known to do this in the past.

Michael Thompson, a satellite hunter based in New Mexico, also suggested that the position of ships could be to see the de-orbit burn and then landing back at Jiuquan.

You can see the Yuan Wang 3’s position in the northern Arabian Sea near the line that the Reusable Experiment spacecraft may use as it goes for landing.

The experiment is expected to test the “reusability technologies”. Comparisons with X-37B operated by the United States Space Force are rife.

I would like to compare it with up and coming missions of the Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) whose Technology Demonstrator mission flew in 2016. In the 2016 mission after being launched by a HS9 solid booster rocket from Sriharikota.

The RLV was launched to an altitude of 65 km where it returned to simulate a landing on sea 425 km from Sriharikota. We are waiting for the RLV mission that will land on an airstrip that was expected to be held in 2020 but has been postponed due to COVID-19.

Update: Andrew Jones writing in Space News on September 7, in an article titled, Chinese reusable experimental spacecraft releases object before returning to Earth, says:

An additional matter of intrigue is provided by the apparent release of an object into orbit by the spacecraft ahead of its deorbit burn. US space surveillance catalogued the new object, designated NORAD ID 46395 (2020-063G COSPAR ID), assigning it to the Long March 2F launch.

The experimental spacecraft orbited in a 331 by 347-kilometer orbit inclined by 50.2 degrees. The new object is in a similarly-inclined 332 by 348-kilometer orbit.

Andrew Jones, Space News

Jones goes on to say that previous missions have launched these small  ‘Banxing’ companion satellites.

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