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China Rolls Out Long March-2F Rocket for Crew Launch to Space Station

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 2, 2022
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The Long March-2F rocket that will launch the Shenzhou-14 spacecraft is rolled out to the launch pad. (Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

China has rolled out the Long March-2F rocket that it will use to send a new three-member crew of astronauts to the nation’s space station. The launch of the as-yet unidentified astronauts aboard Shenzhou-14 could take place from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China as early as Sunday, June 5.

The crew will spend a busy six months in space during which time China will complete initial assembly of the station. The Wentian laboratory module will be launched in July to join the Tianhe core module. The Mengtian laboratory module is scheduled for launch in October.

The Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST), also known as Xuntian (“survey to heavens”), is scheduled for launch next year. It will fly in formation with the space station and dock with it periodically for maintenance and upgrades.

The Shenzhou-14 astronauts will be the third crew to occupy the station, whose core module was launched in April 2021. The station has flown unoccupied since the return of the Shenzhou-13 crew on April 16 after spending 182 days in space.

While launch preparations continue, concerns have been raised about the Long March-5B rocket that China will use to launch the Wentian, Mengtian and Xuntian spacecraft. The first of the heavy-lift boosters has been delivered to the Wenchang spaceport in preparation for the Wentian launch in July.

Long March-5B’s design is such that its entire first stage enters low Earth orbit instead of falling back into the atmosphere over the ocean. During two previous flights, the stages created worldwide safety fears as they made uncontrolled reentries. China apparently lacks the ability to deorbit the stage in a controlled manner.

Harry Boneham, aerospace analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, said the upcoming launches “raise the issue of responsible conduct in space” due to the uncontrolled reentries.

“It is extremely difficult to predict accurately where and when the core stage will make its re-entry, making it challenging to guarantee safety. Going forward, as launches become more frequent, uncontrolled re-entries are not a sustainable practice,” Boneham said. “Aside from risking causing damage to life and property, the practice invites international condemnation due to the disregard shown for the security of fellow countries. It remains to be seen how China can mitigate the risks caused by the LM-5B’s design, but with the LM-9 not expected until 2030 some action is required.”