China to launch unmanned test flight of next-generation crewed spacecraft in 2019

by

HELSINKI — China will perform a first test flight of a full-scale 20-metric ton model of a successor to its Shenzhou spacecraft for human spaceflight next year, a senior official at the craft’s designer said last week.

The next-generation crewed spacecraft will be the payload for the first flight of the Long March 5B launch vehicle, a variant of the Long March 5 and designed for lofting large modules of the planned Chinese Space Station (CSS) into low Earth orbit.

In 2016, China use the first flight of the Long March 7 medium-lift rocket to launch a scale model of a new return module to test re-entry and landing profile for new spacecraft.

“The full model will be tested next year,” Li Ming, vice president of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), told SpaceNews, and confirmed the mission would include the full spacecraft including re-entry and orbital modules.

“The key issue is to test the new shape and reusable technologies. This capsule will be reused after recovery from space,” Li Ming said at the International Astronautical Congress, held Oct. 1-5 in Bremen, Germany.

The test of the spacecraft will not include environmental controls or systems required to support astronauts, but focus on testing avionics, separation events, heat shielding, parachutes and recovery operations, similar to the mission profile NASA’s Orion flew in 2014 when a Delta 4 heavy rocket sent the unmanned capsule 5,800 kilometers above the Earth to test re-entry systems.

CAST, a major spacecraft and satellite maker under the main contractor for the Chinese space program, is developing the Shenzhou successor to allow astronauts to move out of low Earth orbit and into deep space, including missions to the moon and Mars.

China currently uses 7.8-ton Shenzhou spacecraft, based on the Soyuz, for trips to low Earth orbit.To go beyond, the next-generation craft will need to handlethe harsher radiation environment of deep space and deal with reentering the Earth’s atmosphere at greater velocities.

Two versions of the new spacecraft are planned, with one having a mass of 14-metric tons and another of 20 tons. They will be capable of carrying four to six astronauts, according to earlier reports.

Li did not offer a timeline for the first crewed flight but stated the craft could also quickly be available for use to for missions to low Earth orbit, including the CSS.

“Once it has finished the demonstrations I think it will be very quick [sic] to use the new generation [spacecraft], because the new generation has reusable abilities…so the government can reduce the cost to fly to the space station,” Li explained.

Li presented at the International Astronautical Congress on the prospects for a next-generation recoverable satellite for commercial use, which will, apart from heat shielding, also be largely reusable. Li told SpaceNews that China’s Tianzhou spacecraft—designed to refuel and deliver cargo to the CSS—will also feature reusable aspects from Tianzhou-3 onwards.

Long March 5 success required

The planned 2019 mission will be a valuable test of both the 20-ton spacecraft and the Long March 5B, being developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).

If the flight is successful, the new launch vehicle could be cleared to launch the first module of the CSS in 2020.

The Long March 5B will also be human rated and is currently part of the early planning for potential crewed missions to the moon in the 2030s.

The third Long March 5 components at a facility in Tianjin, north China, in October 2018. Credit: CCTV/frame grab
The third Long March 5 components at a facility in Tianjin, north China, in October 2018. Credit: CCTV/frame grab

The tentative mission concept would involve launch of a spacecraft on a Long March 9 super heavy-lift launcher — currently in its early phases of development with a first flight planned for 2028-2030 — followed by astronauts launching on the next-generation crew spacecraft atop a Long March 5B. The lunar stack and crewed craft would then rendezvous and dock in low Earth orbit ahead of translunar injection.

The all-clear to proceed with launch of the Long March 5B and crewed spacecraft test mission is dependent on a successful return to flight of the 5-meter-diameter, 57-meter-tall Long March 5.

The Long March 5 suffered a failure in July 2017 traced to a damaged turbo-pump, prompting a redesign of the YF-77 cryogenic first-stage engines.

Footage aired Oct. 6 by China Central Television showed the components of the third Long March 5 undergoing final tests at a facility in Tianjin, north China. The rocket is expected to be shipped out of Tianjin around the end of the month for delivery to the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island, making launch of the rocket and its near-8-ton Shijian-20 communications satellite payload likely to take place in January.

Progress on China’s plans for a space station, lunar exploration with the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return, and a first independent interplanetary mission—to Mars in 2020—is reliant on a smooth flight.