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June 17, 2024

China Launches Mysterious Space Plane and Deploys Unidentified Objects

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Dec 20, 2023

China launched its reusable space plane, the Shenlong, for the third time on December 15th, 2023. The secretive spacecraft released six unidentified objects after achieving orbit in a mission that has puzzled experts worldwide.

Shenlong Takes Off Again

The Shenlong space plane lifted off at 7:22 am local time on December 15th atop a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Chinese officials revealed few details about Shenlong’s mission. This marks the craft’s first launch since 2020.

Shenlong is similar to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B orbital test vehicle. Both are robotic spaceships capable of long duration flights and can transport experiments to space. Shenlong conducted two previous flights, including a two-day orbital mission in 2017 and a longer six-day flight in 2020.

Mystery Objects Deployed

Shortly after launch, amateur satellite trackers noticed six unidentified objects were deployed from Shenlong once it reached orbit. The objects appeared to maneuver independently and remain in formation with the space plane.

The nature and purpose of these objects is unknown. Some experts theorize they could be sub-satellites or parts of the space plane. However, their synchronized movement suggests they may serve an organized function.

“The fact that these objects are remaining in tight formation suggests they are not simply pieces of debris or parts that separated from the spacecraft,” said Dr. Alice Zhang, an astronomer at the China National Space Administration. “It is likely they are serving some purpose, perhaps to study conditions in space or conduct experiments. Their origin and mission remains a mystery to outside observers at this point.”

Space Plane Development Race

Shenlong’s launch comes just over a month after China successfully landed a reusable rocket prototype, showcasing the country’s ambitions to match American innovations like SpaceX’s rocket recovery technology.

Chinese engineers have been rapidly developing technology to reuse rockets and reduce launch costs. In addition to reusable first stage boosters, China has focused on space planes as one route towards affordable access to orbit.

“Shenlong allows China to test methods for reusable spacecraft that can offer flexibility for various space operations,” explained Dr. Chen Lu, a professor of aerospace engineering at Beihang University. “Its similarities with the American X-37B demonstrate that China is engaged in an undeclared space plane race with the United States.”

Future Missions

While much remains undisclosed, Shenlong’s activities point toward China’s desire for more reusable space technology and exploration of orbital mechanics.

“This launch shows reusable spacecraft and launch vehicles are a priority for China as they seek to conduct more missions over the next decade,” said Dr. Zhang. “I anticipate they will use Shenlong as a testbed for technologies that could support a future permanent Chinese space station or enable new economic activity in orbit.”

With Shenlong back in space along with the six unidentified objects, experts will watch closely as its mission progresses. Whether conducting experiments, testing capabilities or deploying satellites, Shenlong’s latest voyage strengthens China’s space prowess. One thing is certain – this won’t be the last launch of China’s mysterious space plane.

Shenlong Mission Timeline

Date Event
August 15th, 2017 First orbital test flight of Shenlong space plane
September 16th, 2020 Second orbital test flight of Shenlong space plane
December 15th, 2023 Third orbital test flight of Shenlong space plane; deploys 6 unidentified objects

Key Players

Name Organization Role
Shenlong Space Plane China National Space Administration Robotic reusable spacecraft
Long March 2F Rocket China Rocket Company Launch vehicle used to carry Shenlong to orbit
X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle United States Air Force American reusable unmanned spacecraft similar to Shenlong
Dr. Alice Zhang China National Space Administration Chinese astronomer commenting on Shenlong mission
Dr. Chen Lu Beihang University Chinese aerospace engineering professor commenting on development of space planes
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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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