Space authorities of China confirmed the return of an unmanned spacecraft to Earth this Monday morning post its 276 days in orbit, which is supposed to be more than 100 times the duration of its first flight three years back. This space vehicle is reported to have spent two days in orbit during its first mission in 2020.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, China’s biggest space defense contractor, commended the classified space operation as a full-blown success and recognized it as an important breakthrough in terms of China’s journey in technology.
This spacecraft is a reusable one, keeping up with the need of being sustainable. The corporation agreed on the fact that the reusable spacecraft will serve as a cost-effective and more convenient way to explore space.
There are not many details that are revealed about the spacecraft, and the space authorities of China have not yet made public any images or data related to this secret space vehicle. However, few experts believe that this spacecraft could be equipped with imaging and sensing features that are advanced in nature, in order to gain intelligence regarding potential targets or observe sensitive areas of interest.
Experts also think that this mission could have involved deploying into orbit, small satellites or other payloads (instruments that are carried on board by a satellite for a specific purpose—like navigation systems, communication satellites, or sensors required by the military or government).
Based on the payload capacity of the rocket—Long March 2F— that launched the spacecraft, experts believe that there are significant chances of the covert spacecraft having a design similar to that of the Boeing X-37B (US Air Force), states a report by Stephen Chen, published in South China Morning Post.
Last year, this US space vehicle was known to spend 908 days—a record in itself—during its fifth flight from the time it was introduced in 2010, states the report. This spacecraft was measured to be 9 metres (29.5 feet) in length, 3 metres (9.8 feet) high, and weigh approximately 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds); along with this, the US Air Force spacecraft is believed to have a design that can fit in the payload of a standard rocket.
Moreover, the space vehicle is known to have a distinct shape—a flattened wedge-like body—and a wingspan measuring around 4.6 metres with angled wingtips, which gives it a boomerang-like appearance. The spacecraft’s wings are angled at around 45 degrees while being swept back towards the tail. This architecture of the spacecraft enables it to operate efficiently in space and be in accordance with the constraints of existing launch vehicles.
Ever since 2011, the report mentions, the United States of America and China have been head-to-head in terms of developing smaller, uncrewed, reusable space vehicles, when there was a discontinuation of the space shuttle programme due to the increase in cost and safety concerns.
Unmanned spacecrafts have significant advantages—they are cheaper, have more efficient operation and design, not in requirement of support systems as well as accommodations, and can be launched with the help of smaller rockets, the report highlights.
Additionally, a reusable spacecraft can ensure efficacious space travel as well as reduced costs, and can be reused several times, unlike those that are designed for one-time use, ascertains the report. However, there exists many challenges in reusable spacecraft development—advanced heat shielding for re-entry protection, reliable and robust landing systems, along with dependable and efficient propulsion systems, says the report.