Chinese Spaceplane Releases Mysterious Object in Orbit Months After Launch

Chinese Spaceplane Releases Mysterious Object in Orbit Months After Launch

China’s curious spaceplane is at it again, releasing an unidentified object into orbit that could signal the end of its mysterious mission.

The U.S. Space Force is currently tracking the mystery object, which the reusable spaceplane appears to have released on May 24 at around 3 p.m. ET, Jonathan McDowell, astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, noted on X. “This object could be a subsatellite deployment, or it could be a piece of hardware ejected prior to end of mission and deorbit (the spaceplane’s first flight did something similar)“ he wrote. “Will be interesting to see if the plane maneuvers or lands soon.”

The spaceplane launched on December 14 on board a Long March 2F carrier rocket, which took off from the Jiuquan Launch Center in China. Shortly afterward, the vehicle deployed six objects into orbit, which appeared to be emitting various signals. The recent unidentified object, as McDowell suggests, could mean that the spaceplane is getting ready to land soon after 164 days in orbit.

China’s spaceplane is a product of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, a state-owned manufacturer that makes both civilian and military space launch vehicles. The spaceplane’s inaugural flight took place in 2020, when it stayed in orbit for only two days before landing back on Earth. For its second time in orbit, the spaceplane launched in August 2022 and spent 276 days in Earth’s orbit.

During its previous missions, the spaceplane has released other mysterious objects into orbit without identifying their purpose. Overall, China has kept the development of a reusable spaceplane under wraps, sharing little information about its precious vehicle.

“After operating in orbit for a period of time, the experimental spacecraft will return to the designated landing site in China,” China’s state media outlet Xinhuanet wrote. “During this period, it will carry out reusable technology verification and space science experiments as planned, providing technical support for the peaceful use of space.”

As the name suggests, spaceplanes are airplane-spacecraft hybrids that are launched into space by rockets, functioning as orbiting spacecraft once in space and then operating like regular aircraft in Earth’s atmosphere. If proven successful, spaceplanes could become valuable reusable spacecraft, meeting the growing demand for satellite launches and other missions needing transportation to space. Similarly, the U.S. Space Force has its own spaceplane; the Boeing X-37. The U.S. Space Force launched the X-37B aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on December 28 for its seventh mission.

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