China’s secretive, reusable space plane, the Shenlong, has just completed its third spaceflight and released six unidentified objects into orbit around Earth. This mysterious mission and its unknown payloads have sparked intrigue and speculation among amateur satellite trackers and experts worldwide.
Shenlong Space Plane Makes Brief Trip into Orbit
The Shenlong space plane launched into orbit atop a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on November 26. It remained in space conducting unknown activities for just two days before returning to Earth and landing at an undisclosed site.
This is the divine dragon spacecraft’s third spaceflight in less than two years, indicating an exceptionally rapid launch tempo compared to other reusable vehicles like the U.S. Space Shuttle or SpaceX’s Starship. Each mission has followed a similar profile – a brief stay of only a couple days in orbit before returning to Earth. The purpose of these flights remains a closely guarded secret.
|Time in Orbit
|August 4, 2022
|February 13, 2023
|November 26, 2023
6 Unidentified Objects Released into Orbit
Shortly after the space plane’s most recent landing, amateur satellite trackers began noticing multiple unknown objects in orbits similar to Shenlong’s. Their analysis suggests at least six objects were deployed from the spacecraft before it returned to Earth.
The objects appear to be executing coordinated maneuvers and maintaining relatively close proximity as they circle the planet every 90 minutes. No information has been released about the design or purpose of these mysterious payloads.
Some trackers speculate they could be smaller satellites or even inspecting drones deployed to observe the Shenlong on future missions. Their coordinated movements hint that they may be working together as part of a distributed sensor network or experiment.
Unknown Objects Transmitting Unusual Repeating Signal
More intrigue emerged when it was discovered at least one of the objects is transmitting an unusual repeating radio signal. Satellite tracker Scott Tilley observed a strong transmission when the object passed over North America that stands out for its regular pattern.
The signal lasts for about 20 seconds and repeats every few minutes. It consists of a few sharp impulses just milliseconds long followed by a modulated chirp that sweeps from high to low frequency over 3 seconds. This combination of signal properties does not match civilian satellite transmissions and has not been observed before.
While the pattern hints at some form of test signal rather than complex data, the implications are concerning for the United States and other space powers. Repeated mysterious activities show China’s rapidly advancing space capabilities and leave their intentions uncertain.
China Pursuing Next Generation Reusable Space Vehicle
China unveiled the Shenlong space plane in early 2022 when it conducted the spacecraft’s first orbital test flight. The vehicle strongly resembles the U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B robotic mini-shuttle, hinting that China has been developing a similar reusable orbital test platform.
The X-37B has flown six long-duration missions for the U.S. military, spending years at a time in space to test experimental hardware. Shenlong seems optimized for rapid reflight instead of long stays in orbit, but its missions remain just as opaque.
China has also been developing components for a future crewed reusable vehicle similar to SpaceX’s Starship. Technologies like advanced heat shielding demonstrated on Shenlong could aid larger future vehicles that carry astronauts and cargo into orbit.
These rapid developments show China’s ambitions to equal or surpass American space capabilities are progressing rapidly across both robotic and human spaceflight. Opacity around Shenlong’s testing and deployment activities continues to raise concerns about their ultimate applications.
Future Shenlong Missions Promise More Surprises
Amateur trackers will be closely monitoring the space plane, its newly released objects, and signals they produce as they circle the planet. Their ability to maneuver and coordinate opens the possibility of rendezvous activities continuing in orbit before a fourth Shenlong launch.
China has moved fast from early atmospheric tests to orbital missions demonstrating reusability and logistics capabilities like satellite deployment – all without transparency. Operational experience gained puts them in position to consider more complex objectives like orbital inspection, repair, or interference in the near future.
As the divine dragon climbs still higher, its growing capabilities and opacity hint we may see additional launches on short notice next year. Each mysterious mission promises more surprises in orbit as China presses forward its space ambitions. Their eventual goals remain hidden in the shadows of secrecy for now.
Implications for the United States and Allies
China’s development of advanced reusable space systems like Shenlong has serious implications for American interests. Their progress closing capability gaps also pressures U.S. and allied decision makers to advance new systems and consider updated policies.
On-orbit servicer and inspector satellites deployed from the vehicle could position China to damage or disable other nations’ space assets. The unknown objects may collect intelligence on satellite activities or test rendezvous and proximity maneuvers useful for counter-space activities.
To retain space domain awareness and leadership, the United States will likely feel pressure to launch newer X-37 derivatives optimized for flexible rapid reuse. Accelerating programs like the Space Force’s Orbital Prime project to develop satellite servicing capabilities may also gain urgency.
Allied countries are also concerned about protecting their space assets and must weigh investments in capabilities like SpaceBased early warning sensors. Closer technology collaboration and coordinated deterrence policies will be key to balancing China’s aggressive advancement on all space fronts.
The divine dragon’s rapid rise highlights space is an arena of growing geopolitical tension. As the vehicles ambitious test pace continues, so too will focus on its ultimate goals and the expanding shape of 21st century spacepower competition.
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