New Chinese Space Plane Landed At Mysterious Air Base, Evidence Suggests

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China may have landed a new space plane on September 6 at this secretive air base, located in the desert near an old nuclear testing ground.

Planet Labs Inc.


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Planet Labs Inc.

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A photo snapped by a passing commercial satellite shows objects on the airstrip at 10:11 AM (2:11 UTC) local time on September 6, just minutes after a scheduled landing would have occurred.

Photo by Planet Labs Inc. Annotations by NPR.


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Photo by Planet Labs Inc. Annotations by NPR.


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«They didn’t give a launch time, they didn’t give any more details,» McDowell says. The U.S. military picked up the new spacecraft on its tracking network, and McDowell and others quickly plotted its orbit. When they did so, they found that China’s new craft passed over a secretive military facility: an area called Lop Nur where China once tested its nuclear weapons.

In 2016, China constructed an enormous, 5 kilometer (3.1 mile) runway at the site. The new spacecraft’s orbit passed directly over the runway, which was aligned with its path.

On September 6, China announced that the spacecraft had returned to a «scheduled landing site.»

«The ground track around the time of landing suggested that it might have landed at this mysterious new air base,» McDowell says.

Sure enough, McDowell found that the spacecraft would have been able to land on the runway at around 10:00 AM local time (02:00 UTC). The fuzzy Planet image, snapped at 10:11 AM would have been taken just moments after such a landing.

Ground track of Chinese reusable spacecraft passes over airbase near Lop Nor nuclear test site at Sep 6 0155 UTC, consistent with probable landing time. pic.twitter.com/resjPEb6Qr

— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) September 6, 2020

The new spacecraft it is likely much smaller than the U.S.’s space shuttle, which launched using rockets and then glided back to earth. Instead, McDowell and others think the new Chinese vehicle probably resembles a robotic spacecraft called the X-37B. The X-37B has been operated by the U.S. Air Force for about a decade.

So why might China now getting into space planes?

«It’s a great question,» says Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, which advocates for the peaceful use of space. «We’re not even really sure why the U.S. military is pursuing a space plane.»

The US X-37B program remains highly classified. Weeden says he believes it is being used to test new sensors and systems for the military.

«If you can fly some of that technology in space, let’s say in the payload of a reusable space plane, that could give you a better feel for how it might react [once it’s in orbit for good],» Weeden says. Other possibilities include the ability to launch satellites quickly, and test robotic systems for autonomous maneuvers and landings.

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The U.S. Air Force has been sending X-37B into space for over a decade. Its missions remain classified.

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The U.S. Air Force has been sending X-37B into space for over a decade. Its missions remain classified.

U.S. Air Force

McDowell says that space planes, which re-enter earth’s atmosphere at many times the speed of sound, could also potentially aid the development of so-called hypersonic weapons. But he believes China’s motivation could be a simple as wanting to duplicate U.S. military capabilities.

«If the Americans have one of those, there’s got to be a good reason for it, so we better get one too,» he says. Such thinking drove the Soviet Union to develop a copy of the U.S. space shuttle in the 1980s, though it never got much use.

The landing of this space plane—or whatever it was—is just the latest success for China. It recently completed its own satellite navigation system, it has a robotic mission going to Mars, and several probes on the moon.

«China is firing on all thrusters in space,» McDowell says. «I think that this is just one more reflection of that.»

  • space plane
  • U.S. military
  • China

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