China’s next-generation crew capsule was given an updated timeline this week. According to Yang Liwei, deputy chief designer of China’s Human Spaceflight Program, the new capsule will make its first flight in 2027 or 2028. Meeting this timeline will be a key milestone in China’s recently announced plan to land on the Moon by 2030.
The as-yet-unnamed crew capsule has been under development since 2016. The first flight of China’s medium-lift rocket, the Long March 7, carried a scale prototype of the vehicle as its test payload in June of that year.
By May 2020, a test vehicle had been developed and prepared for launch. It was carried to orbit on a Long March 5B, where it spent two days before returning to Earth. The test flight put the vehicle’s avionics through their paces, but it was mostly aimed at demonstrating the vehicle’s re-entry capabilities, including new heat shielding, new parachutes, and a cushioned airbag landing system. The heat shielding, according to designers, should allow for partial reuse of the vehicle.
Yang, who became China’s first astronaut to reach orbit in 2003, called the return module test “successful,” and indicated that work is ongoing to prepare the completed capsule for a maiden flight within five years.
“The new-generation spacecraft will be used for the crewed lunar mission, construction of the China Space Station and deep space exploration,” said Yang, speaking at a university on July 18, 2023.
The design of the new spacecraft includes two modules: the propulsion module and the return module.
This is a significant change from China’s current crewed spacecraft design, Shenzhou, which is based on the architecture of the Russian Soyuz capsules. An aerospace technology sharing program between Russia and China in the 1990s led to Shenzhou’s development, which is slightly larger than Soyuz but shares its three-module design, including a service module, a re-entry module, and an orbital module.
The new spacecraft will be bigger still, able to carry up to seven passengers. There may be different versions of the service module, depending on whether the mission takes place in low Earth orbit or deep space. Zhang Hailian, another deputy chief designer of China’s Human Spaceflight Program, says that the ability to carry 4-7 passengers opens up new opportunities for space tourism.
Recent updates to China’s lunar plans indicate that Chinese missions to the Moon will require two rockets. The first will carry the new spacecraft with astronauts aboard, and the second will carry a 26-tonne lunar descent vehicle. The two vehicles will dock in lunar orbit, unlike the Apollo missions, which carried out their docking maneuver in Earth orbit (although launched on one rocket, the Apollo descent module and command module were not connected properly until reaching Earth orbit). NASA’s planned Artemis Moon landings will also require two rockets, with the astronauts meeting their descent module at a planned space station called the Lunar Gateway.
China’s descent module is designed to carry two astronauts to the lunar surface. Engineers have also been working on a lunar rover and a mobile laboratory.