Saturday, 6 August 2022

Observing China's Re-usable Test Vehicle (or "space plane")


frame stack. Click to enlarge

On August 4 2022 near 16:00 UTC, China launched a CZ-2F from Jiuquan carrying a "re-usable experimental spacecraft". It is the second orbital test flight of the Chinese 'space plane', China's answer to the X-37B, following an earlier orbital flight in September 2020 (see my 2020 blog post) . In 2020, the craft returned and landed on a landing strip near Lop Nur after two days on orbit.

Above is a frame stack of 76 frames showing the spacecraft and the CZ-2F upper stage from the launch in the evening of 5 August 2022 near 20:10 UTC. The frames are from the video below which I shot from Leiden, the Netherlands, with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme + Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens, in deep twilight (sun at only -6 degrees elevation):



The re-usable experimental spacecraft was launched into a 346 x 593 km, 50-degree inclined orbit. The orbital inclination is similar to the September 2020 test launch: the orbital altitude is however different this time. The 2020 test flight was in a 331 x 347 km orbit: the current flight is in a more eccentric orbit with higher apogee altitude (at almost 600 km, or 250 km higher than in 2020).

click image to enlarge

Eight objects (2022-093A to H) have been catalogued from this launch: the reusable test vehicle itself, the CZ-2F upper stage, four pieces of CZ-2F debris, and two additional objects of unknown character, objects G and H. The latter might be secondary payloads. They could perhaps be test targets to retrieve, or 'inspector' satellites to check the outside of the spacecraft. We'll see what happens. They are apparently small as my camera yesterday only registered the test vehicle and the CZ-2F upper stage.

On the previous flight, multiple objects were catalogued as well: apart from the test vehicle itself and the CZ-2F upper stage, there were - just like now- four pieces of CZ-2F debris catalogued. In addition an object was ejected from the test vehicle some 3.5 hours before the latter landed (speculation at the time was that it might have been an inspector satellite to inspect the outside condition of the spaceplane before the landing). That object reentered in December last year.

For the current test flight, the currently catalogued 8 objects, 2022-093A to 2022-093H, have varying apogee altitudes. The H-object has a notably more circular orbit than the other objects:

click diagram to enlarge

It will be interesting to see how long the orbiter will stay on orbit this time, and whether it will manoeuvre (it did not during the previous test flight). When it lands, we expect that to be at the same landing site as in 2020, a remote landing strip near Lop Nor (see the end of this 2020 post).


[added 7 Aug 2022]

Below is footage of another pass, taken in the evening of 6 August 2022. First object to come into view is the CZ-2F upper stage from the launch; then follows the 'space plane' (plus an airliner).

No comments: