A Chinese next-generation crewed spacecraft landed on Friday after a nearly three-day automated flight in Earth orbit.
Pictures from Chinese media showed the capsule descending under three parachutes. The vehicle had made a high-speed reentry from a final orbit of 523 x 6,278 km (325 x 3,901 miles) to simulate a return from deep space.
The new spacecraft, which will carry up to six astronauts, is intended to replace the three-seat Shenzhou spaceship now in use. China will use the new vehicle for operations in Earth and lunar orbit.
A Long March 5B launched the spacecraft into Earth orbit on Tuesday from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. It was the maiden flight of Long March 5 variant, which will be used to launch elements of China’s first permanent space station next year.
Long March 5B has a core stage with four strap-on boosters. It lacks the upper stage of the Long March 5, which is used to send communications satellites to geosynchronous orbit and probes to the moon and planets.
In a crucial step forward for China’s human and robotic spaceflight programs, a Long March 5B booster conducted its maiden flight on Tuesday carrying a prototype of the nation’s next-generation crewed spacecraft.
China’s most powerful rocket lifted off at 1000 GMT (6 p.m. local time) from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. Chinese media have reported the launch from the nation’s southern spaceport was successful.
There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.
The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.
A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.
Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.
The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)
The inaugural flight of China’s new Long March 7 rocket next month will be the first launch from the nation’s newest spaceport.
Long March 7 will carry a prototype re-entry capsule for China’s next-generation human spacecraft when it lifts off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on June 26.
Located on Hainan Island, Wenchang is China’s first orbital launch site located on the coastline. The Jiuquan, Taiyuan and Xichang launch facilities are all situated inland.
Wenchang will be the primary launch site for Long March 7 and Long March 5 rockets. Wenchang is located 19 degrees above the equator, which will make it easier for China to launch satellites into equatorial orbit.