China scored a space double whammy on 5 May 2020 when its successfully launched its heavy Long March 5B launch vehicle carrying a new capsule designed for crewed missions.
The Long March 5B launch was conducted from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on Hainan Island, located just off China’s southern coast on the South China Sea. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) later confirmed that the launch was a success when the 21 metric ton capsule reached its intended orbit.
This mission achieves two milestones for the Chinese space programme.
First, the successful launch provides a green light for future Long March 5B launches, to include its mission to Mars that will send a rover and orbiter to the Red Planet in July this year, as well as the multiple launches required to place the Tiangong space station into orbit starting with the Tianhe core module in early 2021.
Second, the new capsule that was launched to an orbital apogee of approximately 8,000 kilometres will test the heat shielding, avionics, orbital performance, parachutes, landing airbags, and recovery operations.
This test mission is also expected to provide an opportunity for Chinese engineers to test the reusability of the capsule by replacing its heat shield.
The new capsule is expected to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime on 8 May 2020. It is believed that, once operational, the new capsule will be capable of launching six humans into orbit, or three humans and up to 500 kilograms of cargo and will come in two variants: one that is 14 metric tons for Earth orbit missions, and the 21 metric ton version launched on 5 May 2020 that is designed for deep space missions, such as to the Moon.
At present the three-person Shenzhou capsule has been used by China in its six human spaceflight missions to low-Earth orbit (LEO) so far and will also be used for Tiangong space station operations in the future.