China Tests New Crewed Spacecraft and Heavy-Lift Rocket
China has been working to advance its crewed spaceflight plans with endeavors like the Tiangong space stations. An important aspect of China’s plan is its new and unnamed spacecraft, which just had a successful test. The vessel launched on the country’s new heavy-lift rocket, orbited the Earth, and landed safely in a Chinese desert.
The spacecraft, designed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, looks like a scaled-up version of the country’s current capsule and bears more than a passing resemblance to the SpaceX Dragon 2. However, China’s new crew capsule doesn’t have the fancy propulsive landing capabilities of the SpaceX design. NASA currently requires SpaceX to land with parachutes in the ocean, but the company hopes to use the SuperDraco engines for landing in the future.
After reaching orbit, the spacecraft spent the next several days raising its orbit with seven engine burns to reach a maximum altitude of about 4,970 miles (8,000 kilometers). The unnamed prototype uses a trio of parachutes to slow its descent — the smaller Shenzhou capsule currently in service has just one. The new version also has airbags that deploy to further soften the landing, which is another notable upgrade over the previous design. The vessel also carried 10 payloads for science and technology verification.
While the uncrewed prototype successfully demonstrated important new technologies, an even larger module is the eventual goal. The next-generation spacecraft it becomes will support up to six multiple human occupants for long-term space missions. A slightly smaller craft similar to the prototype is planned for low-Earth orbit missions.
The primary purpose of this launch was to test its new Long March 5B rocket, which is almost as powerful as the United Launch Alliance Delta IV booster. This should give China sufficient delta-v to send its new spacecraft to distant locations like the moon, but China also wants to use the Long March 5B to assemble a new modular space station in the next few years. The prototype module with extra propellant on board served as an analog of the anticipated 20-ton station modules.
Meanwhile, the US government is deciding when to end funding for the International Space Station, which has been the primary orbital research facility for the US and its partners for more than 20 years. There are preliminary plans to build the new Gateway station in lunar orbit, but China may be close behind.