The final orbital mission of China’s mysterious space plane may be coming to an end.
The silencer, which launched into Earth orbit on Aug. 4, fired something on Monday (Oct. 31), according to astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The newly released object “may be a service unit, possibly indicating an upcoming burn from orbit,” McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, he said via Twitter (opens in new tab) on Monday.
Related: The latest news on China’s space program
The Chinese space plane launched on August 4 was in an orbit of 597 x 608 km x 50.0 deg on October 31. at about 1200 UTC ejected an object (52418) that may be a service module, possibly indicating an upcoming orbital burnNovember 1, 2022
However, this is not the only possible explanation.
The ejected object could also be “a small satellite to track the space plane,” SpaceNews’ Andrew Jones wrote in a story published today. (opens in new tab) (November 2). “Chinese crew capsules have previously launched small companion ‘Banxing’ satellites for tracking purposes. It could also be a test to deploy small satellite payloads into orbit.”
Whatever the object, its release likely heralds the mission’s imminent end — if a single previous data point is a reliable guide, anyway. The Chinese spaceplane has one other orbital mission under its belt, a two-day excursion in September 2020 that ended shortly after a similar launch, Jones noted.
Such speculation is pretty much all we have to go on, because China has said very little about the space plane or its activities.
For example, this is how China’s state news agency Xinhua described the mission (opens in new tab) (in Chinese, translated by Google) soon after it was removed in early August:
“The test spacecraft will be in orbit for some time before returning to the planned landing site in China, during which verification of reusable and on-orbit service technology will be carried out, as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space . “
Western experts believe the mystery vehicle is about the same size as the US Space Force’s X-37B robotic space plane, which is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long. The US military is also tight-lipped about the Boeing-built X-37B, revealing details only about some of the payloads the spaceplane carries on its orbital missions.
The X-37B is up now, and has been for some time: The program’s sixth mission lifted off on May 17, 2020. It’s unclear when the X-37B will return to Earth.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or up Facebook (opens in new tab).