China has launched a ‘reusable experimental spacecraft’, its state media has reported Friday (4 September)

The scanty Xinhuanet news report said the spacecraft took off onboard China’s Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the country’s northwest. The time of launch was not specified.

“It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space,” the report said.

Great secrecy appears to have been maintained around the launch. No pictures taken by the public are to be seen — generally, pictures come from bystanders if not official sources — although the official Chinese Twitter account “Permanent Mission of China in Vienna” posted a picture of the spacecraft with a caption echoing the successful launch and peaceful technology use points.

It is scheduled to land at its site after the completion of its orbital operations, but it is not known when.

According to South China Morning Post, there is a suggestion that this spacecraft may be similar to the US X-37B — the United States Air Force autonomous space vehicle developed by Boeing and designed to operate in low-Earth orbit before returning experiments to Earth.

The US X-37B has reportedly flown five missions so far, all of them launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It launches vertically, does its experiments in space, and, upon receiving a command from the ground, re-enters to land horizontally on a runway.

It was three years ago that China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation announced China would launch a reusable spacecraft in 2020.

The country wants to be able to carry people and payload to orbit and back with this spacecraft.

Broadly, China wants to make access to space affordable.

As part of that effort, China has been working on a reusable liquid-propellant rocket as well. Called Hyperbola-2, it will use liquid oxygen-methane propellants and is scheduled for its first launch next year. It is developed by a Beijing-based private rocket developer, i-Space, which is the first Chinese commercial space company to send a satellite in orbit. This happened in July 2019.

The rocket’s engine, named JD-1, is designed to be used up to 30 times.

With Hyperbola-2, China will be able to launch small and medium-sized satellites.