China is developing a next-generation, reusable manned spacecraft, senior space agency officials revealed over the weekend after a test flight on a major part of the new craft.
“The overall capability of our next-generation manned spacecraft will be much stronger than that of the Shenzhou series,” Zhang Hongtai, president of the China Academy of Space Technology, which develops China’s spacecraft, said on June 26.
“The number of astronauts it can carry will be double that of the Shenzhou craft, and it will be able to reach deeper space as well as fulfill manned lunar missions and manned Mars explorations.”
China aims to land astronauts on the moon within 20 years, according to the China Manned Space Agency, and Zhang said the new craft will be as advanced in capacity and technology as the United States’ Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, Dragon 2 and CST-100 Starliner and Russia’s piloted spacecraft, the Federation.
On June 26, a scale model of the Chinese craft’s re-entry capsule was launched along with five other payloads on a Long March 7 rocket at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province. It was the rocket’s maiden flight and the center’s first launch.
After 20 hours of flight, the capsule, which was 2.3 meters tall and weighed 2.6 metric tons, returned to Earth on the afternoon of June 26, landing at a designated area in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
“The flight aimed to test the capsule’s aerodynamic design, reusability and the metal materials,” Zhang said.
Yang Lei, chief designer of the capsule, said it was the first time China had tested a craft’s aerodynamics with a real flight. Previous tests were done in wind tunnels.
He said the appearance and structure of the new spacecraft will be different from the Shenzhou series, China’s first-generation manned spacecraft, which cannot be reused.
To reduce production costs and enable reusability, the re-entry capsule uses changeable heat-resistant external layers, he explained, while the heat-resistant hull on a Shenzhou craft is integrated with the inner structure, so when it burns during re-entry it suffers irreparable damage.
The new craft is also made of a new type of alloy that is 80 percent stronger than the aluminum-magnesium alloy used by current Chinese spacecraft, Yang said.
Chinese manned spacecraft usually have three parts: a service module, re-entry capsule and orbital module.
The Shenzhou series has carried out 10 flights since November 1999, when the Shenzhou I was launched. Five missions were manned, sending 10 astronauts into space.
The nation’s most recent manned mission was made in June 2013 by Shenzhou X, which transported three astronauts to dock with the Tiangong 1 space laboratory.
Only the US, Russia and China are able to develop manned spacecraft, Yang said.