Astronomy

China is Working on a New Crew Spacecraft to Carry Up to 7 Passengers

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.

China’s next-generation crewed spacecraft mockup displayed at the National Museum of China. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Scott Alan Johnston

Scott Alan Johnston is a science writer/editor at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, a contributor at Universe Today, and a historian of science. He is the author of "The Clocks are Telling Lies," which tells the story of the early days of global timekeeping, when 19th-century astronomers and engineers struggled to organize time in a newly interconnected world. You can follow Scott on Twitter @ScottyJ_PhD

Recent Posts

SpaceX Reveals the Beefed-Up Dragon That Will De-Orbit the ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously orbiting Earth for more than 25 years…

1 day ago

Gaia Hit by a Micrometeoroid AND Caught in a Solar Storm

For over ten years, the ESA's Gaia Observatory has monitored the proper motion, luminosity, temperature,…

2 days ago

Lunar Infrastructure Could Be Protected By Autonomously Building A Rock Wall

Lunar exploration equipment at any future lunar base is in danger from debris blasted toward…

3 days ago

Why is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot Shrinking? It’s Starving.

The largest storm in the Solar System is shrinking and planetary scientists think they have…

3 days ago

ESA is Building a Mission to Visit Asteroid Apophis, Joining it for its 2029 Earth Flyby

According to the ESA's Near-Earth Objects Coordination Center (NEOCC), 35,264 known asteroids regularly cross the…

3 days ago

The Most Dangerous Part of a Space Mission is Fire

Astronauts face multiple risks during space flight, such as microgravity and radiation exposure. Microgravity can…

3 days ago