HELSINKI — A successful high-speed reentry and landing of a new Chinese spacecraft Friday marked a step toward the country sending astronauts to the moon and deep space.

The new spacecraft was launched by the first Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket Tuesday. The uncrewed spacecraft performed seven orbit-raising maneuvers to reach a final apogee of around 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles).

A deorbit burn was completed at 1:21 a.m. Eastern, followed by separation of the service and crew modules at 1:33 a.m.

The new spacecraft slowed its descent with three parachutes, whereas the smaller, 8-ton Shenzhou predecessor uses just one. Airbags were deployed to cushion the landing in a further upgrade on the older craft.

Touchdown of the crew module in the desert Dongfeng landing area occurred at 1:49 a.m., the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) confirmed shortly after. The reentry speed was greater than 9 kilometers per second, according to CASC.

The primary mission goal was proving the Long March 5B rocket for future launches of roughly 20-metric-ton space station modules. The new-generation crewed spacecraft—loaded with extra propellant—was the payload analogue. 

Once successfully inserted into low Earth orbit the spacecraft began its own mission to test deep space capabilities. The  67-hour mission resembled the 2014 Exploration Flight Test 1 of the Orion spacecraft, but reached a higher apoapsis.

The roughly 20-metric-ton core stage of the Long March 5B is currently in a 151 by 317 kilometer orbit inclined by 41 degrees, according to U.S. tracking data. Increasing atmospheric drag will see the spent booster make an uncontrolled reentry around May 11.

The core stage measures 31.7 meters in length and five meters in diameter. It is more than twice the mass of the Tiangong-1 test bed space laboratory which made a much-publicized uncontrolled reentry in April 2018.

New Chinese spacecraft

The new spacecraft was developed by CASC, the main contractor for the country’s space programs. Two versions of the two-module spacecraft have been developed. These are a 14-ton craft for LEO and the larger, 21.6-ton deep space variant for deep space.

The LEO version is capable of carrying six astronauts, or three astronauts and 500 kilograms of cargo. It could replace the Shenzhou as the main means of transport to and from the future modular Chinese Space Station. 

The new Chinese spacecraft for beyond-LEO has a length of 8.8 meters and a maximum diameter of 4.5 meters. Liftoff mass is 21.6 metric tons.

The new spacecraft is to be partially reusable, unlike the Shenzhou. The heat shield will be detached and replaced, allowing much of the spacecraft to be reused.

“We designed a foldable shield. During the flight, when the spacecraft needs docking with the space station, the shield will spread out, exposing the rendezvous and docking mechanism and sensor,” Guo Bin, deputy chief designer of the spacecraft, told CCTV.

The prototype was previously expected to launch in 2019, before further delays to the Long March 5 launch schedule. The plan at that time was for the mission to not have life support systems installed, according to an official with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a CASC subsidiary. The spacecraft has not yet received an official name.

China's prototype new-generation crewed spacecraft undergoing testing.
China’s prototype new-generation crewed spacecraft undergoing testing. Credit: CAST
China’s prototype new-generation crewed spacecraft undergoing testing. Credit: CAST

While a fully-functional version of the spacecraft can facilitate missions to deep space, China’s crewed lunar plans are vague. Officials have outlined missions for the mid-2030s, but the space transportation and landing aspects are undecided. 

A concept involving a Long March 5B launch of the crew spacecraft and subsequent LEO rendezvous and docking with a lunar stack launched by the future super-heavy-lift Long March 9 has been presented.

Another approach would see a new launch vehicle for human spaceflight, understood to be in the early stages of development. It would utilize three 5-meter-diameter cores and be powered by clusters of YF-100-variant kerolox engines.

Mission experiments

The spacecraft carried more than 10 payloads for experiments and technology verification. A 3D printing system of composite materials printed both a honeycomb structure representing the structure of the spacecraft and the CASC logo.

It was the first 3D printing of continuous fiber-reinforced composite materials in space, according to CAST.

An time-triggered Ethernet system completed the verification of clock synchronization, multi-source data sampling, and high-definition image transmission, state media reported. 

China’s human spaceflight agency, CMSA, revealed after landing that the spacecraft carried a range of seeds into the inner Van Allen belts for radiation exposure. Further experiments related to microgravity and other areas.

An experimental inflatable cargo reentry module deployed from the spacecraft suffered an anomaly during reentry May 6. It was due to land near Dongfeng, a desert area close to Jiuquan launch site. 

The module was developed by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC). It was also trialing a lightweight Li-CFx battery. 

A view inside the Chinese new-generation crew spacecraft.
A view inside the Chinese new-generation crew spacecraft. Credit: CCTV/frame grab

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.