China’s Spaceplane Returns After 276 Days

China’s Spaceplane Returns After 276 Days

China’s uncrewed reusable spaceplane, thought to be similar to the U.S. X-37B, has returned to Earth after 276 days in space. Both China and the United States are highly secretive about what these spacecraft do while they are in space, but lengthy mission durations seem to be part of the plan.

China’s CGTN confirmed the spaceplane’s return late last night EDT. Launched on August 5, 2022 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, CGTN said the “test’s success marks an important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft technology research and provides technological support for the peaceful use of space.”

The first flight was in 2020 and landed just two days later, so this was a significant step forward in duration.

Expert amateurs who closely track satellites using Two Line Element (TLE) data from the U.S. Space Force’s public database and other methods estimate this landing was about 00:20 UTC May 8 (8:20 pm EDT May 7) at Lop Nor.

Bob Christy (@OrbitalFocus) and Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) were among those tweeting the news.

Todd Master of Umbra, which operates commercial Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) microsatellites, tweeted images of the Lop Nor landing site before and after the estimated landing time.

The 276-day duration of China’s spaceplane is well short of the record of 908 days set by the U.S. X-37B in November 2022. The X-37B, built by Boeing, looks like a small space shuttle and started as a NASA effort to build a space taxi for the International Space Station. NASA terminated the program in 2004 and transferred it to DOD, which continued development as an uncrewed system. There are two flightworthy vehicles and they have made a total of six flights since 2010 accumulating over 10 years in space.

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