China’s reusable spacecraft like the X-37B looks like a relatively small aircraft. Chinese media previously reported that this spacecraft was launched from Jiuchuan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China in August last year. It was launched on Long March 2F rocket. This rocket is the same launcher that China uses to launch manned Shenzhou missions. According to McDowell, considering that this launch vehicle has a maximum carrying capacity of 8.4 tons, the Chinese space plane probably weighs between 5 and 8 and NASA’s retired space shuttles are much smaller.

Although the current model of China’s reusable spacecraft is too small to carry astronauts, McDowell said it wouldn’t be surprising if the country introduced a larger version of its spacecraft for manned missions in the future.

Satellite hunting?

McDowell says China may be testing a variety of technologies that could further the country’s space ambitions. One of these technologies can be releasing a satellite and getting it into orbit. According to the report of the American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Chinese space plane released an object into orbit that was detected in October last year.

McDowell, who tracked the Chinese spacecraft using data from the US Space Force, said the abandoned object apparently disappeared from orbit in January and reappeared in March. One possible explanation is that the spacecraft picked up the object and carried it as cargo before releasing it again. Such an event shows that the spacecraft has a cargo compartment; This means that it can be used to carry tools and satellites. According to McDowell, this maneuver, which may have been performed with a robotic arm, was probably an exercise for servicing and repairing the satellite.

McDowell says the Chinese have worked with robotic arms in other areas, such as the Tiangong space station and other satellite servicing experiments. For example, last year, the country de-orbited a defunct satellite using another satellite.

In its report about the landing of the space plane, Xinhua News Agency emphasized on its peaceful use. McDowell points out that despite the large number of spy satellites in space, China does not necessarily need a space plane for this purpose. But Polpeter says China’s space program is largely run by the country’s military, and as a result, its space missions are usually classified. According to him, even if the Chinese use their space plane to service and repair the satellite, it does not mean that they cannot use it for offensive or military activities.

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