China’s Mysterious Shenlong Space Plane Released Object at 600km Above the Earth

Space & Technology World

China’s Mysterious Shenlong Space Plane Released Object at 600km Above the Earth

China's experimental reusable spacecraft, Shenlong, recently released an object into low-Earth orbit during its third mission, sparking interest and speculation about its purpose and capabilities.

China’s experimental reusable spacecraft, Shenlong, recently ejected an object while orbiting 600 km (372 miles) above the Earth. This event, detected by the US Space Force on May 25, raises curiosity about Shenlong’s mission and capabilities, especially since it has not deployed operational satellites this time.

The released object, catalogued as 59884, has remained in a stable orbit similar to Shenlong’s but has not made any maneuvers since its ejection. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and space activity tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, suggests the object might be an inert piece of hardware.

Scott Tilley, an amateur astronomer known for finding a lost NASA satellite, reported that neither the object nor Shenlong has emitted new signals since the release. This observation adds to the mystery surrounding the object’s purpose and status.

Shenlong, often compared to the US military’s X-37B space plane, embarked on its third mission on December 14, 2023, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert. The details of Shenlong’s size and capabilities remain largely undisclosed.

Shenlong’s maiden flight in 2020 lasted only two days. Its second mission in August 2022, which lasted nine months, involved testing satellite deployment and retrieval technologies. During its current mission, Shenlong reportedly released at least five objects, though these were likely debris from the Long March rocket used for its launch, according to Tilley.

In late January, Shenlong raised its orbit from around 300 km to 600 km, where it has stayed since. Chinese space authorities have provided minimal information about this mission. State media reported that Shenlong would conduct reusable technology verification and space science experiments to support the peaceful use of space. However, specifics about the mission’s progress and the spacecraft’s return date remain undisclosed.

As Shenlong continues its mission, the global space community watches closely, intrigued by the advancements and implications of China’s reusable spacecraft technology.

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