China launches top secret space plane into orbit

The Long March 2F rocket carried China's experimental space plane from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on December 14 to conduct scientific experiments.

Simulation of China's Shenlong reusable space plane. Photo: Ilkha

The latest launch of the space plane took place just 7 months after the vehicle's last mission, much faster than the first two launches that took place 23 months apart, according to SpaceNews. In addition to scientific experiments, China's spaceplanes also provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.

Because hours before the launch in Jiuquan, SpaceX postponed the takeoff of the US Space Force's X-37B reusable space plane, and even moved the Falcon Heavy rocket from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. The mission, named USSF-52, was canceled on December 13 to conduct further system testing. The exact reason for this delay and the new launch date have not yet been disclosed.

Similar to the X-37B, information surrounding the reusable space plane nicknamed Than Long is very scarce. The aircraft appears to be used to test new equipment and operate in orbit. The vehicle launches vertically on a rocket, performs its mission, then lands horizontally on a runway like the US space shuttle. According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University who specializes in tracking rocket launches and space activities, both the X-37B and Than Long have a mass between 5 and 8 tons and are 10 meters long.

The Shenlong's first flight lasted two days and the second flight lasted about nine months, during which the vehicle released an unidentified object into orbit. It could be a small satellite designed to monitor Than Long or a service module that is no longer needed.

An Khang (According to Space)

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