Chinese spacecraft returns to Earth after inaugural flight

China's lunar exploration program Chang'e-5 Mission exhibition at National Museum in Beijing
FILE PHOTO: A model of the Long March-5 Y5 rocket from China's lunar exploration program Chang'e-5 Mission is displayed at an exhibition inside the National Museum in Beijing, China March 3, 2021. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

July 16, 2021

BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese spacecraft capable of flying to the edge of the atmosphere took off and returned to Earth on the same day in what China said was a big step towards developing reusable space transportation technology.

The spacecraft lifted off from a launch centre in northwest China on Friday and completed its flight according to “set procedures”, said China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC), the country’s main space contractor.

It then landed back on Earth “horizontally”, CASC said in a statement.

A spacecraft that can fly to suborbital space ought to be able to travel to as high as 100 km (62 miles) above the Earth’s surface. The CASC did not say how high the spacecraft flew, or elaborate on its flight path. Visuals of the spacecraft or its flight were not provided.

“The development of reusable space transportation technology is an important symbol of China’s transition from a ‘big’ space-faring nation to a ‘powerful’ space-faring one,” CASC said.

Reusable spacecraft would lead to higher frequency of missions and lower mission costs due to its reusability.

In September last year, China sent an experimental spacecraft into orbital space on a rocket. The spacecraft returned to Earth after two days in orbit on its low-key mission.

Commentators on Chinese social media have speculated that Beijing has been developing a spacecraft like the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B, an autonomous spaceplane that can remain in orbit for long periods of time before flying back to Earth on its own.

It is not known if both the orbital and suborbital spacecraft launched by China had fixed wings like the U.S. Space Shuttle.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)