On Monday, China’s mysterious reusable space plane returned to Earth after completing a record-breaking 276-day orbit. The mission was the longest one yet for this new space plane, which had previously spent just two days in orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist specializing in China’s space program.
Despite the lengthy duration of the recent flight, China has released very little information about the space plane’s objectives, specifications, or activities in orbit. In a brief announcement, Chinese state news agency Xinhua hailed the mission as a breakthrough in the country’s research on reusable spacecraft technology, which it said would enable more affordable and convenient methods of space travel in the future.
The manufacturer of the space plane, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), echoed Xinhua’s statement on the social media platform Weixin. Xinhua reported that the experimental spacecraft landed at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. However, orbital tracking data and satellite imagery suggest that the landing actually took place at the Lop Nur military base in the neighboring province of Xinjiang, according to Jones.
Despite the lack of information, Chinese state media touted the event as a significant milestone in the country’s space program. Reports noted that the spaceplane’s journey was much shorter than the US X-37B, which spent a record 908 days in orbit.
The Warzone reported that data from private space services company LeoLabs suggests that China’s mini spaceplane docked with or captured a smaller object multiple times during its 276-day space mission. The mini spaceplane also demonstrated formation flying and raised its altitude through multiple large maneuvers, in addition to what appeared to be two or three docking or capture missions.