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China's first reusable spaceplane lands after 2-day flight

September 6, 2020

China had kept the military-run space mission secretive and low-key, with no photograph or video footage of the launch and landing made public. Beijing said the flight would make space missions convenient and cheap.

Digital 3D Illustration of a Space Scene
Image: picture-alliance/K. Niehus

China's first reusable spacecraft landed Sunday at Jiuquan after spending two days in orbit, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Chinese officials said the probe would lead to cheaper round-trips to space.

The flight "marks an important breakthrough in our country's research on reusable spacecraft'' that promises a "more convenient and inexpensive way'' to reach space, Xinhua said.

Read more: The facts on Hope: The UAE's Mars mission 'Al-Amal'

Beijing kept the mission secretive, releasing only very few details about the spacecraft.

It was launched on Friday aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's desert northwest.

State media have yet to publish any photos of the aircraft or the video footage of its launch and landing.

Chinese authorities gave no details about the craft's technology. Some commentators on Chinese social media compared it to the US Air Force's X-37B, an autonomous Boeing spaceplane that can remain in orbit for long periods of time before flying back to Earth on its own.

Read more: China's new spacecraft lands back on earth

China's space ambitions

In 2017, China announced it would launch a spacecraft in 2020 that can fly like an aircraft and would be reusable. It said the technology would increase the frequency of launches and lower mission costs.

It is, however, not known if the experimental spacecraft launched on Friday, was a fixed-wing craft like the US Space Shuttle.

The first Chinese astronaut went into orbit in 2003. Last year, China became the first country to land a robot rover on the moon's little-seen far side. A probe carrying another robot rover is on the way to Mars.

The US and the former Soviet Union both flew reusable spacecraft – the US space shuttle flew 134 missions from the 1980s until 2011, after which the US military developed the X-37, a robot glider that made its sixth flight in May.

The Soviet spacecraft, Buran, orbited the Earth twice during its single flight in 1988.

Read more: #Modi2Moon: What's up with India's space ambitions?

shs/rc (AP, dpa, Reuters)