China Also Has a Secret Space Plane

Image (Credit): USAF’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg AFB, California in June 2009. (USAF)

You may have heard of the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) X-37B unmanned mini-space shuttle that has been sent into orbit many times in the past. It performed secretive missions for the USAF, yet it now falls under the U.S. Space Force. The X-37B is currently orbiting the Earth and has been doing so since May 2020. While it has been said to carry various NASA experiments, this is probably cover for its other work (given that the International Space Station is more than able to carry out these experiments).

So while we are still trying to figure out the real mission of the X-37B, China is experimenting with its own secret space plane and saying even less. On August 4th, China launched its space plane aboard a Long March 2F rocket for a spin around the globe. This is part of continuing experimental flights.

And just in case you might think Russia is falling behind, it already has spacecraft in orbit that seem to be tracking some U.S. satellites.

What are these nations up to? The role of the U.S. Space Force relates to:

…organizing, training, and equipping Guardians to conduct global space operations that enhance the way our joint and coalition forces fight, while also offering decision makers military options to achieve national objectives.

That does not sound like a scientific mission, which is why the USAF and not NASA owned the spacecraft years back.

More likely than not, while these spacecraft will be able to repair and protect the parent nation’s satellites, they will also be able to block, disable, and destroy the satellites of other nations. Yes, this is the militarization of space and all that means in a time or war – potentially endless debris threatening the missions of the other satellites orbiting the planet.

Like it or not, the space race continues on in many forms.

Note: The U.S. Air Force still has a page on the X-37B that highlights its mission. The page states:

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold; reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.

Here are the specs for the X-37B:

  • Primary Mission: Experimental test vehicle
  • Prime Contractor: Boeing
  • Height: 9 feet, 6 inches (2.9 meters)
  • Length: 29 feet, 3 inches (8.9 meters)
  • Wingspan: 14 feet, 11 inches (4.5 meters)
  • Launch Weight: 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms)
  • Power: Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries
  • Launch Vehicles: United Launch Alliance Atlas V (501) and SpaceX Falcon 9