Outer space continues to be drawn into both technological advancements and geopolitical competition. On December 14, China launched a reusable space plane for the third time on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. A Xinhua News report said that the space plane was launched in order to run various space science experiments, in addition to validation of the reusable technology as well as “to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”
Interestingly, the timeline for such space plane launches is getting shorter, a sign of the maturity of the reusable technology and Beijing’s confidence in its growing space prowess. China’s first space plane made its debut mission in September 2020, and a second mission followed in August 2022, with a gap of one year and 11 months between the two missions. That the third mission came slightly more than seven months after the last made its return to Earth, after a 276-day mission, reflects the advances that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the agency that developed the space plane, has achieved with regard to “reusability of the spacecraft.”
China is yet to release any information on the spacecraft or the mission itself, but given that it was launched from a Long March 2F rocket, which has a payload capacity of around eight metric tons to Low Earth Orbit, it may be similar to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane in terms of both its size and payload capacity.
However, what is more interesting is that the reusable space plane, Shenlong or “Divine Dragon,” reportedly released six unidentified objects in Earth’s orbit. The objects are being observed by both the U.S. Space Force and amateur astronomers alike. The objects, designated as OBJECT A, B, C, D, E, and F by the U.S. Department of Defense, are still emitting signals. The U.S. official NORAD TLE designations for these objects are 585573 through 585577 and 585581.
Scott Tilley, one of the amateur astronomers who has been tracking these objects, called it the “mysterious wingman.” Tilley, in a thread on X, formerly Twitter, added, “We have confirmation of S-band signals from the 3rd Chinese ‘space plane’ mission. However, this time the ‘mysterious wingman’ emitter is only sending signals intermittently but it is fading deeply like earlier missions.”
Speaking to space.com via email, Tilley is reported to have said that OBJECT A is possibly emitting signals quite similar to those objects from China’s previous space plane missions. In an email, Tilley said, “OBJECT A’s or nearby emission is reminiscent of earlier Chinese space plane ‘wingman’ emissions in the sense the signal is modulated with a limited amount of data. There is speculation that the emission from OBJECT A may be from an object close to it, but this is speculation not based on any evidence I’m aware of.”
According to Tilley, two other subjects, OBJECT D and E, also “appear to be emitting idle ‘placeholder’ signals with no data accompanying them.” Various satellite trackers including Tilley are of the view that these emissions could be from OBJECTS A, D, or E, or they could also be coming “from something else very close to them.”
These are speculations at this stage by those who have been tracking the spacecraft and the objects that have been released, but there is very little credible information to go by on the mission including its goals or plans for the future. In some ways, this is similar to the United States’ X-37B reusable space plane, whose planned operations and capabilities have remained unclear. But it can be said with reasonable confidence that China will continue to mature these capabilities and undertake more complex maneuvers.
As one media report noted, that China can release objects into orbit from its space plane is not the mysterious aspect of the mission, especially since the past two missions had released at least one object into the orbit. The objects involved are thought to be either small satellites for tracking the space plane or a small test payload, which could provide China with some experience in releasing objects from the space plane.
There is now speculation that China’s capability in this regard has matured for it to undertake more complex missions. Given the kind of space security developments on display over the last few years and considering that there are growing attempts at interfering with satellites of other countries, China could now have developed capabilities where it is able to do “on-orbit manipulation and disrupting, degrading, destroying, and surveilling other satellites.”
Given the dominant space security dynamics at play, with no new rules or even guidelines to govern new sets of activities like on-orbit satellite servicing, China, Russia, and the United States can be expected to step up their activities in terms of intelligence gathering but also more disruptive actions using cyber or electronic warfare means.
Understandably, the U.S. is monitoring China’s growing technological prowess in this area, and that is one reason why it appears to be continuing with the X-37B program. In 2020, there was speculation that the U.S. space plane was on its way out, having “served its purpose.” But Chief of Space Operations General B. Chance Saltzman, on the sidelines of the Space Force Association’s Spacepower Conference earlier in December, referred to the China-U.S. dynamics as spurring the X-37B program.
He went onto add, “It’s no surprise that the Chinese are extremely interested in our space plane. We’re extremely interested in theirs. Because it is a capability; the ability to put something in orbit, do some things, and bring it home and take a look at the results is powerful. … It’s probably no coincidence that they’re trying to match us in timing and sequence of this.”
The X-37B space plane was supposed to have its seventh planned lift-off recently, but SpaceX stood down its Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center launch pad. That liftoff has been delayed several times in the past week, although reasons for the delay are unclear.
The China-U.S. space competition and the broader strategic rivalry will only intensify in the coming years. This competition will also intensify the space race, especially in these new areas of technology development.