China goes head to head with U.S. X-37B space plane, launches new heavy intel satellite

Special to, December 20, 2023


By Richard Fisher

China’s expected 3rd mission for its new small space plane was launched on Dec. 12, and on Dec. 15 China launched its largest optical intelligence satellite, Yaogan-41.

Meanwhile, the expected 7th launch for the United States Space Force’s X-37B for Dec. 11 was postponed to Dec. 28,

A photoshopped image of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (left) and the Chinese Long March 2F, both configured with shrouds to protect small space planes, launched close to each other in December 2023. / Chinese Internet

There was much anticipation in the second week of December that the U.S. and China would conduct near simultaneous launches of their small space planes, both of which are dual-use, meaning they can perform civil and military missions in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

However, issues with ground equipment forced a halt in the Dec. 11 launch of the SpaceX tri-core Falcon Heavy space launch vehicle, that by Dec. 15 has been rescheduled for Dec. 28.

Nonetheless, on Dec. 13, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman told reporters at the Space Power Association’s Spacepower Conference that it is “probably no coincidence” that the Chinese space plane was launching about the same time as the U.S. one.

Since the mid-1980s China has studied space planes, initially influenced by the U.S. Space Shuttle program but by the end of the 1980s had redirected its manned space program to single use SLVs to loft its Shenzhou capsule development of the Soviet/Russian Soyuz capsule.

But what survived was a small space plane program initially called Shenlong that emerged in 2007 as an airborne glider test vehicle, with the current space plane likely similar in size and configuration.

Astronomer Scott Tilley disclosed on his X/Twitter on Dec. 16 that the Chinese space plane had launched six small objects.

The second Aug. 4, 2022 mission that lasted 277 days to May 8, 2023 also saw the launch of multiple smaller satellites, some of which the space plane subsequently re-captured.

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