China’s new generation crew capsule successfully returned to Earth in the early hours of Thursday. Returning under three red and white parachutes, the capsule landed safely under the cushion of airbags at 05:49 UTC on the dry Dongfeng landing zone, Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
Designated in the Chinese press as Xinyidai Zairen Feichuan – Shiyan Chuan, the capsule was launched on the maiden flight of the Long March-5B (Chang Zheng-5B) launch vehicle from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, Hainan province, on May 5.
The deorbit burn took place at 04:21 UTC, followed by the service module separation at 05:33 UTC. Entry Interface was marked around 05:38 UTC.
Before re-entry into the atmosphere, the capsule executed a skip maneuver employing aerodynamic lift in the high upper atmosphere. The technique is used to extend the re-entry time for vehicles returning to Earth from the Moon to avoid having to shed a large amount of velocity in a short time causing very high rates of peak heating.
The skip reentry was used by Apollo Command Module returning from the Moon, as well as the Soviet Zond Probes and the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1.
Following atmospheric reentry, and at a determined altitude, two deceleration parachutes were opened, stabilizing the vehicle. Then, the three main parachutes were deployed, slowing the flight speed of descent.
According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), moments before touching down the heat shield was discarded and six airbags were deployed and inflated to help it land softly.
Total flight time was two days and 19 hours, during which it carried out a series of space science and technology experiments, including key technologies like heat shielding and control during its re-entry into the atmosphere, as well as multi-parachute recovery and partial reuse.
After reaching orbit, the new generation crew capsule was put on an initial orbit of 162 x 377 km, 41.1-degree orbit. In the days that followed, the capsule executed a series of orbital maneuvers. At the end of May 5, it was on a 299 x 719 km, 41.1-degree orbit.
It was initially tested in an orbit of 320 x 4,971 km orbit, rising even further on May 6 to a 523 x 6,278 km, 42.8 degree orbit.
The final apogee of the was reported to be near 8,000 km altitude and reentry velocity was higher than 9 km/s.
The launch opened the door for future important missions, such as the launch of the Tianwen-1 Mars probe next July, the launch of the lunar return sample Chang’e-5 mission, or the beginning of the construction of the Tiangong modular space station in 2021.
Developed by the Chinese Academy of Spaceflight Technology, the new vehicle will be used in both low-Earth orbit missions and deep-space exploration flights. Capable of transporting six crew members (or 500 kg of cargo with a crew of three), the new capsule has a total length of 8.8 meters, a 5-meter diameter, and a launch weight of 21,600 kg.
The new vehicle, composed of a service module and a return capsule, was designed to be reused ten times.
The conic shaped crew module has a 3.3-meter diameter and a 3.0-meter length. The service module has a 5.8-meter length and a 3.0-meter diameter.
The service module is discarded before re-entry. It contains liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for fuel cell operation and water production (as well as to provide breathing oxygen for the crew), fuel cells, solar panels and batteries to provide electrical power to the spacecraft, guidance computer systems and sensors, fuel and oxidizer for reaction control and propulsion systems and thermal control systems for proper heating and cooling.
The return capsule is the reusable part of the Chinese new generation crew space capsule. It provides a pressurized habitat for the crew, also providing storage for consumables and research instruments. Depending on the mission it can be adapted with a docking port for crew transfers.
The capsule can also be equipped with large screens connected with wearable devices.
The return capsule also uses a non-toxic propulsion system consisting of 12 monopropellant-powered engines, applied for the first time on a Chinese vehicle to make the capsule safer and reusable.
The new design can also shorten the development cycle and cut the development costs, which will show a significant advantage in the future with space exploration activities more and more frequent.
The new vehicle has two versions. A LEO version (with a launch mass of around 14,000 kg) and a Beyond-LEO version (21,600 kg). The main difference between both vehicles is in the service module.
The mission also tested a new “flexible and inflatable cargo return capsule” called the Rouxing Chongqi Shi Huowu Fanhui Cang Shiyan Cang. Designed and built by China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC), it was a test of a return capsule with an inflatable heat shield.
As it turns out this inflatable heat shield project by CASIC has been around for quite some time with a model exhibited way back in 2018 (back then the mission was scheduled for 2019)! It was bolted to the back of the prototype crew S/C at launch. pic.twitter.com/WqS68vlr0E
— Cosmic Penguin (@Cosmic_Penguin) May 6, 2020
In a form a small spacecraft of 1.0 m × 1.5 m in size, the experiment was mounted on the rear of the new generation crew capsule service module and for re-entry, it inflated a three meter conical heat shield, to decelerate the capsule for landing – so no parachute was needed.
The capsule returned to Earth on May 6, but according to the China Manned Space Agency, it operated abnormally during its return to the ground and was lost. Experts will analyze and evaluate the relevant data to try to determine the causes of the failure.
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