China’s Long March 5B Launches New Experimental Crew Spacecraft

China’s Long March 5B Launches New Experimental Crew Spacecraft

China launched a new version of its Long March 5 rocket with an experimental crew spacecraft today. The launch paves the way for construction of China’s multi-module space station in Earth orbit, robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, and perhaps human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit.

China’s development of the Long March 5, roughly the equivalent of a U.S. Delta IV Heavy, has met with mixed success.  The first launch in 2016 was categorized as a success even though it was not trouble free. The second failed completely the next year.  It took two more years before they tried again.

That launch, in December 2019, was successful, but it was followed by the failure in March 2020 of another version of the rocket, Long March 7, that shares some system design with Long March 5. China has revealed very little about what went wrong and Western observers have been wondering if it could delay this Long March 5B attempt. China also recently suffered a failure of a different rocket, Long March 3B, from another launch site.

Those launch failures did appear to impact this launch, although official Chinese sources said very little about it in advance.  Western China space watchers had inklings it was about to happen and posted alerts on social media yesterday.

The launch from China’s newest space launch center, Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, took place at 6:00 pm Beijing Time (6:00 am Eastern Daylight Time). Chinese space officials held a post-launch press conference after the payloads were successfully in orbit.

Launch of Long March 5B from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, Hainan Island, China, May 5, 2020. Screengrab from CGTN.

The launch carries a prototype of a next-generation crewed spacecraft and an experimental cargo retrieval craft that will return to Earth on May 6 and May 8 according to a Chinese space official at the press conference.  No one was aboard this test flight.

The spacecraft will be used in part to support China’s new multi-modular China Space Station (CSS).

China already has launched two small space stations, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, but they were quite small, 8.6 MT each.   The CSS will consist of three 20-MT modules, for a total mass of 60 MT.  That is much smaller than the International Space Station, which is about 400 MT, but a significant advancement for China.

A Chinese official today reiterated that the goal is to have the CSS completely assembled by 2022, adding that crew members for the first mission have been selected and are in training.  He said they are planning four crew launches and four cargo launches to the CSS, and will rotate the crews, suggesting they plan to keep it permanently occupied like ISS.

But China has bigger plans, too. Although not mentioned at the press conference, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, referred to the new spacecraft’s role in human exploration beyond low Earth orbit: “The new manned spacecraft is designed to adapt to multiple tasks including low-Earth orbit missions and deep-space explorations.” It added that the mission will test “control of its reentry into the atmosphere, heat shielding and recovery technology….”

Those tests will be conducted after the spacecraft uses its own propulsion to raise its orbit to about 8,000 kilometers according to China space expert Andrew Jones, writing in Space News.  Jones considers it analogous to the Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2014.

The successful launch also clears the way for two robotic spacecraft that require this particular rocket. Launch of the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission has been delayed for several years because of the earlier failures. China also plans to launch an orbiter/lander/rover mission to Mars this July.

The Long March 5B does not have a second stage like its Long March 5 cousin, and can lift 22 MT to low Earth orbit.  Although that is less than the advertised capability of the Long March 5 (25 MT), Long March 5B has a much larger payload fairing, allowing the launch of larger payloads.

The press conference included extensive discussion of the measures taken to protect workers at the launch site from COVID-19 and the launch was called a “victory” against the virus.

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