Article by Matt Williams May 15, 2020 (universetoday.com)
• Two milestones have brought China closer to becoming a full-fledged superpower in space. One was the successful return on May 8th of a next-generation crewed spacecraft that launched into low earth orbit on May 5th and spent 67 hours in space. The other was the launch of China’s new Long March 5B (CZ-5B) heavy-lift rocket carrying a target payload for the first time. The heavy-lift rocket took the new spacecraft into orbit, although the spacecraft was unmanned for this test mission.
• The purpose of the spacecraft mission was to test its deep space capabilities since it will be carrying Chinese astronauts, or “taikonauts”, to the Moon and beyond in the coming years. The spacecraft reached a maximum distance of 4,970 miles from earth. The spacecraft deployed its three parachutes to slow down during its descent back to earth and airbags were deployed to cushion the landing. The previous Shenzhou spacecraft relied on only one parachute and had no airbags. Once it returns to Earth, crews will refurbish the new spacecraft by replacing the ‘foldable’ heat shield and removing any additional scoring from the hull.
• The purpose of the heavy-lift rocket mission was to test its payload ability, as it will be used to bring materiel to build a space station orbiting the Moon. The Chinese wanted to make sure that the heavy-lift rocket could handle a 22 US ton payload because they intend to eventually carry into orbit the components needed to construct the Tiangong-3 Modular Space Station. The uncrewed spacecraft and 22,000 lbs of fuel propellant brought its launch mass to 23.8 US tons.
• The rocket and spacecraft were launched from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center – located on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Upon reaching orbit, the booster and spacecraft separated. The spacecraft brought along a composite materials 3D printing system, a time-triggered Ethernet system, and a range of seeds intended to test the effects of microgravity and radiation from the Van Allen belts on the growth of plants, which is essential to any plan to build space stations and habitats in orbit. On its return, the spacecraft touched down at the Dongfeng landing area in China’s northeastern Jilin province.
• On May 11th, a spent rocket stage of the Long March 5B re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean. The booster landed safely in the ocean off the west coast of Africa. Some pieces of the rocket landed on an African village, however. If it had re-entered earth’s atmosphere fifteen minutes earlier, the debris would have landed on New York City. No injuries were reported.
• This latest mission has sent a clear message to the global astronomical community that China will be expanding its presence in ‘low earth orbit’ in the coming years. In this decade, China will have the capability to send taikonauts to the Moon, followed by the creation of a permanent lunar base in the next decade, and maybe crewed missions to Mars.
China’s next-generation crewed spacecraft, which will replace the venerable Shenzou spacecraft in the coming years, recently returned to Earth after spending almost three days in space. The purpose of this mission was to test the deep space capabilities of the spacecraft that will be sending Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) to orbit, to the Moon, and beyond in the coming years.
In addition, this mission also saw China’s new Long March 5B (CZ-5B) heavy-lift rocket launch a payload to space for the first time. This rocket is the latest installment in the Long March family and will be vital to the creation of the third and largest Chinese space station. These two milestones have brought China a step closer to becoming a full-fledged superpower in space.
The uncrewed spacecraft and Long March 5B launched on their maiden voyage together in the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 5th, from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center – located on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Once they reached orbit, the booster and spacecraft separated, and the second part of the mission commenced (i.e. the validation of the crewed spacecraft prototype).
Over the course of the next 67 hours, the spacecraft performed seven orbit-raising maneuvers and reached a maximum distance (apogee) of around 8,000 km (4,970 mi) from Earth’s surface. This is similar to what was done during Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) with the Orion spacecraft back in 2014 – though that mission lasted only 4 hours and completed 2 orbits.
By Friday, May 8th, at 01:21 AM EST (10:21 PM, May 7th, PST) the spacecraft completed its deorbit burn, which was followed by the separation of the service and crew modules about twelve minutes later. The new spacecraft deployed its three parachutes to slow down during descent and airbags were deployed from the underside to cushion the landing.
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