China launched a secret experimental space plane on Friday, fuelling speculation the country intends to start ferrying humans to and from space.
It is believed a Long March 2F rocket was launched from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert early on Friday morning.
There was no official announcement of the launch at the time, but observers noticed air traffic restrictions that indicated it was taking place.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency later confirmed the launch, saying that a “reusable experimental spacecraft” was on board that would “test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space.”
The plane has been sent into an orbit of up to 217 miles (350km) in altitude, a similar height to other Chinese crewed flights. It remains unknown how big the rocket is, what it will do in orbit and how long it will remain there.
The Chinese government has been working on space plane technology for the last decade. In 2017 it announced it intended to launch such a vehicle by 2020.
“There have been some clues that this mission might happen,” Andrew Jones, a journalist who covers the Chinese space programme, told New Scientist.
“But the actual timing was a surprise.”
The plane could transport Chinese astronauts into and out of orbit, potentially to a planned future space station.
A space plane is considered ideal for re-entering the atmosphere due to “less brutal accelerations for the human body”, space analyst Jean Deville said.
“There [are] undeniable military uses for a space plane,” she said.
“China has shown a strong interest in developing these technologies.”
Friday’s launch is seen as a signal of China’s growing capabilities in the realm of space travel.
“If you look at what they’re doing in the commercial sector, promoting innovation and low-cost launch vehicles, this is part of a wider context of Chinese plans for space transportation,” Mr Jones said.
“But it’s hard to say how big this [space plane] is in China’s plans.”
He added: “We don’t know if this is a scaled version to test certain technologies, or a full-sized version. It’s so vague, so secretive. It’s very interesting, but it’s also quite frustrating.”