Launch of New Crewed Spacecraft Kicks-Off Plans for Chinese Space Station

The Chinese Long March 5B launch on Tuesday carried a new experimental crewed spacecraft into low-Earth orbit, where a new space station will be built.
Brad Bergan

China launched a Long March 5B rocket Tuesday morning, which carries a prototype deep-space spacecraft, demonstrating the rocket's ability to lift entire space station modules into low-Earth orbit (LEO), according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), which confirmed the successful launch roughly 20 minutes post-launch.


China launches new experimental crewed spacecraft

The liftoff happened at 6:00 AM EDT from the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center situated on Hainan island. The four side boosters separated roughly three minutes into the new spacecraft's flight, reports SpaceNews.

The prototype next-generation spacecraft reached its intended orbit 488 seconds after liftoff.

This launch of an almost 22-metric-ton payload marks the Long March 5B as a viable candidate to carry modules for China's forthcoming space station into LEO. The future station's Tianhe core module may see a launch in early 2021.

UPDATE May 5, 3:00 PM EDT: New crewed spacecraft specs and mission briefing

This successful launch also signals China's readiness to move forward with a July mission to send an orbiter and rover to Mars. China saw two earlier failures to launch in March and April, which brought a short-term halt to launch plans and added extra pressure on today's mission.

The 8.8-meter-long (roughly 29-foot-long), 21.6-ton uncrewed spacecraft will propel itself to increase its orbital altitude to an apogee of roughly 8.000 kilometers (4,970 miles).

Later, the spacecraft will make a high-speed reentry to test its new heat shields. The mission is also a test-run for parachute deployment, performance in orbit, avionics, a cushioned airbag landing, and final recovery.

Reentry is slated for May 8, after in-orbit tests are complete, reports SpaceNews. The spacecraft is also designed for partial reusability — with a replaceable heat shield — which is also slated for testing.

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China's Next-Gen Prototype
China's new prototype crewed spacecraft in testing. Source: CAST

Officials declared that the new reentry cargo spacecraft was aboard the Long March 5B rocket during a post-launch conference. Animations of the experimental reentry spacecraft may be viewed in this tweet.

Two YF-77 cryogenic engines and two pairs of kerolox side boosters launched the 849-metric-ton Long March 5B off of its launch pad.

In 2017, a YF-77 turbopump failure grounded the Chinese workhorse Long March 5 rocket for more than 900 days. This later delayed the Long March 5B variant test launch, and, by association, China's plans for a space station.

The crew-capable spacecraft will house up to six astronauts, or three astronauts plus 500 kilograms (roughly 1,100 lbs) of cargo to LEO. Called the Shenzhou, the spacecraft can take three astronauts to LEO and has so far been used for all six of China's crewed missions.

The Shenzhou has two variant forms of roughly 14 and 21 metric tons. This mission will test the second, developed for deep-space missions.

This is breaking news, so be sure to return here for the latest developments.

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