China’s Experimental Crew Capsule Returns to Earth – UPDATED

China’s Experimental Crew Capsule Returns to Earth – UPDATED

China’s test of a prototype crew spacecraft for future missions to an Earth-orbiting space station and perhaps the Moon ended successfully this morning (EDT) with a landing in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. [Updated with video of the capsule being moved from its landing spot to the Jiuquan space center.]

China’s Xinhua news agency announced the news.

JIUQUAN, May 8 (Xinhua) — The return capsule of the trial version of China’s new-generation manned spaceship successfully returned to the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region at 1:49 p.m. (Beijing Time) Friday, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

On Twitter, @LaunchStuff tweeted a video and a photo of the spacecraft after landing from China’s Weibo social media service.

No one was aboard this test flight, which has been likened to the Experimental Flight Test (EFT-1) of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2014.  After reaching orbit on May 5 aboard China’s new Long March 5B rocket, the spacecraft used its own propulsion to raise its orbit to an aopgee of about 8,000 kilometers and then made a high speed reentry through the atmosphere to test the heat shield in an environment similar to a return from the Moon.

Bob Christy (@Zarya_Info) tweeted the seven orbit raising maneuvers made by the spacecraft.

Andrew Jones (@AJ_FL) tweeted before and after photos of the spacecraft.

China’s CGTN television network later released video of the spacecraft being transported from its landing site to the nearby Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Jiuquan, in the Gobi desert, was China’s first launch site and is used for all launches and landings of astronauts (or “taikonauts”).

The Long March 5B rocket is the key to China’s future space exploration plans for both human and robotic flight.  Its success on Monday opens the door to launching the three modules that will comprise the 60 Metric Ton (MT) China Space Station (CSS), planned for completion in 2022. Though small in comparison to the 400 MT International Space Station, it will be a significant advance over China’s first two space stations, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, which were 8.6 MT each.

When ready, this spacecraft, which does not yet have a name, will be used to ferry crews to and from the CSS.  China also has indicated that it plans to use it for journeys to the Moon and this test is a step in that direction although just one step. Like the Orion EFT-1, the spacecraft was a prototype and not outfitted with systems needed to support a crew. Orion still will undergo an uncrewed test flight on the rocket that will send it to lunar orbit, the Space Launch System (SLS), before putting astronauts aboard. The EFT-1 used a Delta IV rocket, which is much less capable than SLS.  Long March 5B is a little less capable than the Delta IV.

Long March 5B also will be used later this year to launch a robotic sample return mission to the Moon, Chang’e-5, and another spacecraft — the Tianwen-1 orbiter/lander/rover — to Mars.  The Long March  5B version does not have a second stage like the Long March 5, but has a larger fairing allowing it to launch bigger payloads.  China says it can launch 22 MT to low Earth orbit.

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