China has successfully completed an uncrewed test mission of its next-generation crew capsule.
China’s newest crew capsule was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center On May 5. After approximately 2 days and 19 hours in orbit, the spacecraft performed a deorbit burn at 04:21 UTC on May 7.
The spacecraft then executed an atmospheric skip reentry at 05:38 UTC. This type of reentry utilizes the Earth’s upper atmosphere to slow the vehicle down to a reentry speed of around 9km/s.
Following a successful reentry, the spacecraft deployed three red and white parachutes and airbags to cushion its touchdown, much like the Boeing Starliner spacecraft. At 05:49 UTC on May 7, the spacecraft touched down safely on the dry Dongfeng landing zone in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
Once in operation, the crew capsule will be used by China to transport taikonauts to and from the country’s new station, the first module of which is scheduled to be launched early next year. Additionally, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the spacecraft will also be used for “deep space” missions.
In addition to being a key mission for the crew capsule, it was equally important for the rocket that launched the spacecraft.
The spacecraft was launched on the maiden flight of the Long March 5B, China’s newest variant of its most powerful launch vehicle. The launch was significant in that it gives the country the confidence to begin to launch space station modules.
China is expected to launch three space station modules aboard the Long March 5B over the next two years. The Tianhe core cabin module is expected to be the first to be launched. The module will provide life support, living quarters for a crew of three, and orientation control, navigation, and guidance for the station. It is expected to be launched in the second quarter of 2021.