What's the spacecraft up to?

Orbital Swarm

After embarking on its third mission, China's top-secret spaceplane, dubbed Shenlong, has released six mysterious objects into Earth's orbit — and we have no idea what they are.

On December 14, the country launched its reusable spaceplane from the Gobi Desert, as the state-run news agency Xinhua reported at the time. According to the brief update, its third flight will be used to verify reusable spaceplane technologies and carry out science experiments.

But according to amateur astronomer and satellite tracker Scott Tilley, who's been closely tracking the spacecraft since its launch, it released six objects upon reaching orbit — and they appear to be emitting a variety of signals.

Intermittent Signals

All six are being tracked by the US Space Force and were designated the names OBJECT A through F by the US Department of Defense.

At least one of the objects appears to be closely following the spaceplane.

"OBJECT A's or nearby emission is reminiscent of earlier Chinese space plane 'wingman' emissions in the sense the signal is modulated with a limited amount of data," Tilley told Space.com.

According to the amateur astronomer's analysis, OBJECT B appears to be the spaceplane itself, with OBJECT A and B traveling "in a similar orbit and relatively close to each other," he tweeted.

OBJECT D and E are emitting idle "placeholder" signals without any accompanying data, Tilley told Space.com.

"It should be noted that unlike emissions early in the Chinese space plane missions 1 and 2, these emissions are very intermittent and do not stay on long," he explained.

According to Tilley, there's a chance A, D, and E could make several close approaches with each other given their orbits.

It's not the first time China's secretive spaceplane has placed a mysterious object into orbit. Last year, SpaceNews reported that the US Space Force was tracking an object released by the experimental spacecraft during its second mission.

And during its first mission in 2020, the spaceplane also released an object two orbits into its two-day journey. The object continued broadcasting S-band transmissions for weeks, per SpaceNews.

At this point, all we can do is guess as to what these objects are. Are they satellites? Service modules? Given the secrecy shrouding China's space program, there's a good chance we'll never find out.

More on the spaceplane: Chinese Spaceplane Releases Mystery Object Into Orbit

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