China’s secret spaceplane releases object into orbit

On its third space mission, China’s reusable experimental spacecraft launched on December 14, 2023, attracted the attention of the US Space Force by placing an unidentified object into orbit on May 24. What is it about ?

A new secret object released into orbit

Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and famous satellite hunter, was the first to report this event, that the object could be a sub-satellite deployment or a material element ejected before the end of the mission and deorbit.

As a reminder, a sub-satellite deployment is an operation during which a smaller satellite, called a sub-satellite, is released by a main satellite in orbit. This technique is often used to deploy additional instruments or payloads in space. Subsatellites can have various functions, such as collecting scientific data or carrying out specific experiments.

The spacecraft’s previous missions had also involved releases of objects in orbit, suggesting they could be used for proximity and capture maneuvers.

For its part, China has maintained strict secrecy around this mission by providing no official images or descriptions of the spacecraft. The official Chinese report on the activity simply mentioned that verifications of reusable technologies and space science experiments were carried out in accordance with plans to support the peaceful use of space.

A lack of transparency

This mission is part of China’s efforts to develop capabilities similar to those of the US Air Force’s X-37B, a reusable space plane also top secret. THE X-37B is already well established and carried out its seventh mission last year. The Chinese spacecraft is still in its infancy and has achieved its third mission after flights in 2020 and 2022. The first flight lasted two days, while the second lasted 276 days.

The American X-37B space plane. Credits: Boeing/US Space Force

This third flight also saw the spacecraft perform maneuvers to change its orbit. It was placed in an initial orbit of 333 kilometers by 348 kilometers at an altitude inclined by 50 degrees. Space domain awareness data from the US Space Force then showed that the craft had raised its orbit through a series of maneuvers, settling into a current orbit of 602 kilometers by 609 kilometers. However, again, details on this project remain limited.

As China continues its development in space, these advances highlight the growing importance of closely monitoring space activities, as well as the need for transparency and international cooperation to ensure the security and sustainability of outer space. atmospheric.



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