Commercial satellite imagery from Planet Labs and other Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) indicate that China’s recent secretive space launch tested an experimental reusable spacecraft like the U.S. Air Force’s similarly secretive X-37B spaceplane. The imagery obtained by The Drive shows a remote air base with an incredibly long runway in China’s northwest.
The secret air base is near the Lop Nor nuclear test site, and according to The Drive, has “a runway more than 16,400 feet long, or over three miles in total length, making it one of the longest in the world.” This massive runway, with very little ramp space for aircraft, would make it ideal to land a spaceplane.
Based on analysis of the Chinese spacecraft’s trajectories and the satellite imagery of this newly discovered airbase, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, stated in a tweet that:
All data *consistent* with an experimental X-37-style spaceplane launch BUT*** – “reusable” doesn’t necessarily mean “winged”. – still *could* be a Dragon style capsule with a parachute landing in the Taklamakan somewhere – exact launch and landing times not announced by China So we should be clear about what is known and what is a guess.
If China’s reusable space vehicle isn’t a spaceplane, it is possible that a capsule-like reusable spacecraft – like America’s Space-X’s Dragon – could also have landed in the desert near the air base, notes The Drive.
However, other evidence, such as the large payload fairing on top of the Long March 2F carrier rocket seen in the images from this tweet by Andrew Jones, points to the experimental spacecraft being a spaceplane.
Now then — this could be something exceptional. The rumours are that inside this exceptional payload fairing atop a CZ-2F is a CASC spaceplane, launching from Jiuquan Friday. Source: 俊了个锅 via 林晓弈。 https://t.co/qs6VRfzQoP https://t.co/OESvzyDyEl pic.twitter.com/ZPnpwAIfyO
— Andrew Jones (@AJ_FI) September 3, 2020
Regardless of the specific type of experimental spacecraft China is developing, it only demonstrates its growing ability to threaten vital U.S. space-based assets. Chief of Space Operations General John “Jay” Raymond, U.S. Space Force’s senior uniformed officer, stated in July that at least one of China’s recent space launches had actually been a test of an on-orbit anti-satellite weapon.
The Pentagon’s recent report to Congress on the Chinese military and security threat also addressed this growing Chinese space threat. It states that:
The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] continues to acquire and develop a range of counterspace capabilities and related technologies, including kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots, as well as expanding space surveillance capabilities, which can monitor objects in space within their field of view and enable counterspace actions…
Regarding this newly publicized “spaceplane recovery base,” and similar facilities, the Defense Department report also notes:
China has built an expansive ground support infrastructure to support its growing on-orbit fleet and related functions including spacecraft and space launch vehicle (SLV) manufacture, launch, C2, and data downlink…Additionally, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] continues to develop counterspace capabilities—including direct ascent, co-orbital, electronic warfare, and directed energy capabilities—that can contest or deny an adversary’s access to and operations in the space domain during a crisis or conflict.
Hopefully, we will learn more of this spacecraft soon. But whatever type of spacecraft China is developing, it is certainly part of its dangerous effort to militarize and dominate space. President Trump’s creation and launch last year of the new U.S. Space Force, and his plans to land humans on the moon by 2024, are only part of the U.S. strategy to prevent China from achieving that goal.