China's mysterious reusable spacecraft returns to earth

Last weekend we talked a bit about a mysterious Chinese mission that put an unknown payload into space. Reports indicated at the time that the payload was a reusable spacecraft, but no one knew exactly what the mission of the spacecraft was. That spacecraft spent two days in orbit around the earth before reentry and landing.The spacecraft launched on Friday, September 4, and the Chinese state-run media outlet Xinhua said that the spacecraft landed on Sunday, September 6. While it was confirmed that the reusable spacecraft did return to earth, the exact mission is still a mystery. Speculation suggests that it was a test mission for China's plan that it has been working on over the last several years to build and operate a reusable spaceplane.

The spacecraft completed its scheduled landing after a two-day in-orbit operation, according to Xinhua. It's unclear exactly where the spacecraft landed. We know that the launch happened aboard a modified Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Northwest China. It's also known that the launch platform was modified to support something larger than normal diameter.

While the spacecraft that China launched has been called a spaceplane, it's important to note that astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell has stressed that we can't assume the spacecraft China placed into orbit is a spaceplane. He points out that "reusable" doesn't mean winged.

The reusable spacecraft could be similar to the Crew Dragon capsule or capsules operated by other space organizations. The United States does have a reusable space plane that it has placed into orbit for over a year at a time in the past. Exactly what that spacecraft gets up to in-orbit remains a mystery.