For years, the US’s Area 51 has raised curiosity among defense and space enthusiasts across the world. If the latest reports and satellite images are to be believed, China is building a similar facility in a remote region.
What’s Area 51?
Area 51 is located approximately 135 km away from Los Angeles, in the Nevada Desert. For decades, the US has used this “secret” location to develop and test its advanced aircraft.
Through multiple warning signs, surveillance, and armed guards, the area has been kept out of bounds for the public.
Area 51 is also located close to two other military areas, the Nevada Test Site and the Nevada Tests and Training Range. The area is out of bounds for civilian aircraft. Recent satellite images have shown 3.7 km long runways at the secret site.
During the Cold War, US President Eisenhower gave a nod to the development of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft named Project Aquatone. To keep the project a secret, Area 51 was established.
Over the years, the US reconnaissance planes, such as the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird were developed at Area 51.
For the US military, the location “represents a flexible, realistic and multidimensional battle-space to conduct testing tactics development, and advanced training”.
It took decades for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to accept the existence of the secret Area 51. Before that, Area 51 had been mired in conspiracy theories.
One of the rumors floating around was that an alien spacecraft and its pilots which had crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, were kept at Area 51.
In 1955, there had been increased “sightings” of unidentified flying objects or UFOs around Area 51. The “sightings” were in reality the test-flights of the U-2 aircraft of the US Air Force.
Regarded as the most challenging aircraft to fly, the U-2 was nicknamed ‘Dragon-Lady’. Its powerful engine could maintain the aircraft at an altitude of around 70,000 feet, which was much higher than the altitude of civilian and other military aircraft of the time.
The presence of the U-2 was noted by other pilots flying around the area who could not figure out what it was, thus fuelling the alien theory around Area 51.
China’s ‘Area 51’
Experts believe that China is building its own Area 51, a secret site to test its advanced military aircraft, away from the prying eyes of its enemies.
Located in a remote area in the western part of China, the secret area has reportedly seen the construction of buildings, near the runway, according to NPR, an independent, non-profit media organization.
Recent satellite images show a number of buildings being constructed near the runway. The runway shot to fame in 2020 when China’s space shuttle landed on it.
In 2020, a US-based company Planet took a photo of a Chinese space plane, minutes after it landed at the runway in a remote area of western China. At the time, NPR reported that a classified Chinese spacecraft had reportedly landed on a long runway, which had a number of support vehicles parked nearby.
Not much was known about the plane nor the mission. Chinese Xinhua news agency mentioned that a ‘reusable experimental spacecraft’ had been carried into orbit by a Long Mach 2 F rocket, and the launch and landing had both been successful.
China’s ‘Space Plane’
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was of the opinion that “it was a test of something, probably a space plane, that made a winged re-entry and landed on the runway”, he told NPR.
Ground track of Chinese reusable spacecraft passes over airbase near Lop Nor nuclear test site at Sep 6 0155 UTC, consistent with probable landing time. pic.twitter.com/resjPEb6Qr
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) September 6, 2020
Reportedly, the spacecraft took off on September 4, 2020. While China did not reveal any details on the launch, the spacecraft was picked up by the US military and experts on tracking networks, and its orbit was then plotted.
They found out that the spacecraft passed over a secret Chinese military facility called ‘Lop Nur’. Though not much is known about the space plane, it is believed to be similar to the US Air Force’s robotic spacecraft called the X-37 B, according to Mc Dowell.
The US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B is around 8.8 m in length and has a height of 2.9 m. It has a wingspan of 4.6 m and similar to a space shuttle, it launches vertically with the help of a rocket, and ends its journey by landing on a runway.
According to the US Air Force, “the primary objectives of the X-37B is two-fold – reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined on Earth”. The X-37 B has been operated by the US Air Force for a decade and remains a classified project.
Experts believe that China’s construction of the secret base, which in all probability began in 2020, is similar to the buildings in other Chinese military facilities.
The remote location of the site gives China the perfect opportunity to test its secret aircraft, such as “atmospheric aircraft, high-altitude aircraft, high-altitude drones, potential bombers, and other experimental aircraft”, Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted.
China’s Hypersonic Drone
China has been enhancing its military infrastructure in Tibet and Xinjiang regions. Last week, The EurAsian Times reported on new satellite images showing a secret unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at Xinjiang’s Malan airbase. Chinese drones such as the Wing Loong and Sharp Sword were also spotted there.
The satellite images also revealed a black triangular UAV, identified by many experts as a hypersonic drone. A French news portal East Pendulum stated that the aircraft was 12.1 m in length and had a wingspan of 5.6m.
Writing for East Pendulum, Henri Kenhmann said, “The physical appearance of this mysterious drone, therefore, suggests that it is rather designed for high flight speed.
Analysis of the image also suggests that it is powered, probably with an RBCC (rocket-based combined cycle propulsion) or TBCC (Turbine-based combined cycle propulsion) type engine.