China’s Launch of Reusable Spacecraft ‘Divine Dragon’ Sparks Global Interest in Mysterious Payloads and Intensifies Space Competition with U.S.

China’s successful launch of a reusable experimental spacecraft has been over a week, but the external attention has not cooled down, still closely monitoring its movements after liftoff.

The news of this mission was announced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Group on the evening of December 14: China successfully launched a reusable experimental spacecraft using the Long March 2F carrier rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

The group stated that after a period of orbital operation, the experimental spacecraft would return to the designated landing site in China. During this time, it would conduct planned reusable technology verification and space science experiments, providing technical support for the peaceful use of space.

The official Chinese announcement provided limited details. What kind of technology verification will the reusable experimental spacecraft undergo? What scientific experiments will be conducted? How long will it operate, and when will it return? What is the purpose of this mission, and what is the long-term plan? The answers to these questions are currently unknown, fueling curiosity in the external world.

“Divine Dragon” Releases Six Mysterious Objects

U.S. space website “Space” and “The Drive” reported more information on December 19, revealing that amateur astronomers, using satellite tracking systems and radio signals, confirmed that the “Divine Dragon” (Shenlong) released at least six mysterious objects or payloads into Earth’s orbit. “Divine Dragon” is the colloquial term for this spacecraft in U.S. media and Chinese networks.

The reports also mentioned that these six small objects have communication capabilities, and they are currently transmitting data through the S-band. Some U.S. astronomers attempted to analyze the content of these signals but achieved little success. The only confirmed information is that these mysterious objects likely have interactive capabilities. They identified an object with the code name “A,” which had close encounters with objects D and E. Object A’s orbit was close to circular, while D and E had orbits that were approximately elliptical.

The reports also noted that the launch trajectory of China’s “Divine Dragon” seemed similar to previous ones, but the unique radio transmission capability is unprecedented, leaving aerospace experts unable to confirm the nature of the six mysterious objects.

Canadian amateur astronomer Scott Tilley told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that he and a professional space observation team in Switzerland detected at least six objects flying in low Earth orbit shortly after the launch of “Divine Dragon,” including a pair of satellites possibly released by “Divine Dragon.” However, the function of these two satellites is still unknown and may be related to “rendezvous and retrieval” missions. As for the other objects, they might be debris from the launch rocket.

Additionally, according to Tilley’s analysis, “Divine Dragon” may have sent signals to a “secret ground station near the west coast of North America or on a coastal ship.”

Tilley emphasized that this is only his speculation. In 2018, Tilley assisted NASA in reestablishing contact with the IMAGE satellite, which unexpectedly lost communication in December 2005. “Divine Dragon” is considered China’s version of the U.S. military’s X-37B.

The ‘Divine Dragon’ is Regarded as the Chinese Version of the U.S. X-37B

Various analyses and speculations from the external world are currently unconfirmed, but there is a general consensus that China has evidently improved its development capabilities in reusable spacecraft, narrowing the gap with the United States in space exploration. Naturally, “Divine Dragon” is seen as China’s counterpart to the U.S. unmanned spaceplane X-37B.

X-37B, developed by Boeing for the U.S. military, is a solar-powered unmanned aerospace vehicle. Boeing announced that X-37B made its maiden flight in 2010, spending over 10 years in space and setting a record of 908 days for the longest time in orbit during its sixth mission.

As the U.S. X-37B experiments have progressed in recent years, China has also accelerated related technological experiments. In September 2020, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China successfully launched a reusable spacecraft into space using the Long March 2F carrier rocket. The spacecraft returned to the designated landing site after two days in orbit.

On August 5, 2022, China successfully launched another reusable experimental spacecraft using the Long March 2F carrier rocket at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. After flying in orbit for 276 days, it returned to the landing site on May 8, 2023.

According to reports, in both of these launch missions, “Divine Dragon” seemingly released a special object of unknown purpose. At that time, it was speculated that these unidentified objects might be test devices for practicing sending effective payloads into orbit or small satellites for monitoring the external conditions of the spacecraft.

In this year’s third launch mission, the mysterious objects released by “Divine Dragon” increased from one to six. Regardless of their purpose or mission, objectively speaking, this change signifies a significant step forward in China’s development in this field. It is generally expected that the orbital time of “Divine Dragon” in this mission will be longer, more scientific experiments will be conducted, and technical verifications will be more in-depth. All sectors are closely watching the future space competition.

Various Sectors are Concerned about the Future of Space Warfare

The progress of China and the United States in related experiments and verifications is highly anticipated. Another main reason behind this is clearly the potential future space competition.

Public information shows that the X-37B has a fuselage length of about nine meters, a wingspan of about five meters, and a top speed exceeding 25 times the speed of sound, making it difficult for conventional military radar technology to track its movements.

Moreover, the X-37B project itself is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Space Force, not a civilian exploration project led by NASA. In other words, the military application of X-37B is apparent.

What about China’s “Divine Dragon”? According to the analysis by U.S. media, thanks to the dynamic maneuverability of the spacecraft in Earth’s orbit, the objects it carries are particularly suitable for tasks such as electronic warfare interference, intelligence gathering, or even anti-satellite missions. Therefore, it is not ruled out that the objects released by China’s “Divine Dragon” could be “intelligence assets,” potentially enhancing China’s space intelligence system.

In response to this, Colonel Shao Yongling of the People’s Liberation Army refuted in an article, stating that U.S. media completely analyzes the purpose of China’s space mission from a biased perspective and that this is not the first time U.S. media has hyped the military use of China’s reusable spacecraft. In recent years, almost every time China launches a reusable spacecraft, U.S. media always exaggerates it as “China releasing mysterious payloads into Earth’s orbit.”

Shao Yongling is a military propaganda expert for the Chinese military and a well-known military commentator. She wrote, “In recent years, the biggest strides in promoting space militarization have clearly been made by the United States. U.S. media themselves admit that the U.S. military is exploring the possibility of space orbital warfare. However, the U.S. military still shamelessly accuses our country’s normal space launch missions, even though our country’s official statements have emphasized multiple times that China’s reusable spacecraft aims to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”

She concluded, “The six payloads released by our country’s spacecraft in space this time will ultimately be based on the information released by our country’s space department. With the breakthroughs in our country’s space technology, I believe this day will not be too far away.”

Even if it’s not far away, the moment when the answers are revealed may have to wait until “Divine Dragon” returns to Earth—likely several hundred days from now.

Currently, while China’s “Divine Dragon” took off last week, the United States had originally planned to launch the X-37B for its seventh mission at the same time. However, due to various reasons, this mission has been confirmed to be postponed until next Thursday (December 28).

With China and the United States, the two largest aerospace countries in the world, starting a new round of tests two weeks apart, each playing its own game, it is inevitably impacting nerves, and discussions on this matter will not cease. The trend of space militarization is undoubtedly accelerating.

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