China is making great strides towards its space exploration ambitions as it is well on the way for developing its next-generation spacecraft that will be intended for human use.
China made the announcement today through a recent promo video from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a state-owned spacecraft and satellite manufacturer, which showed off the development of a spacecraft that it claims to be able to not only send humans to the moon but also out into deep space.
Currently, CAST doesn’t have a name for their next-generation spacecraft, but it details that it will be a two-module spacecraft and will consist of a crew module and a service module, which will provide propulsion, power and life support for the crew section. The spacecraft is up to 30 feet (9 meters) long and has a maximum mass at liftoff of around 22 tons (20 metric tons).
The crew module will be partially reusable, while the spacecraft as a whole features a modular design that will allow it to be constructed to meet different mission demands.
According to the Chinese entity, once finished, the spacecraft will be able to lift four to six astronauts at a time to the moon and for deep space exploration missions.
As for the launch vehicle that will carry it off the Earth’s gravity, CAST has yet to make an announcement. Currently, China uses the 8.6-ton (7.8 metric tons) Shenzhou spacecraft, which can carry three astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO). However, Shenzhou is not designed for the harsh radiation environment of deep space, nor can it survive the high-velocity re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere that such missions must endure.
It will also be likely that before any manned testing or even farther than Earth’s orbit, China will develop a separate launcher that will be suitable for such missions.
Notably, the new Chinese spacecraft is expected to make an uncrewed test flight in the first half of 2020, on the first launch of the Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). That schedule depends, however, upon the return to flight of the Long March 5.
The Long March 5B has also been designed to launch the 22-ton (20 metric tons) modules for China’s planned station in LEO. If the test flight goes well, China can then begin constructing its space station with the launch of the core module, Tianhe, likely in 2021.
“These capabilities tell us that China is committed to long-term human spaceflight at a slow but consistent pace,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
It is the opinion of Johnson-Freese that “what the US did as The Hare — fast, but sporadic — China is now doing as The Tortoise, slow and methodically.”
Li Ming, vice president of CAST, told an outlet that, following demonstrations, the new spacecraft can be brought into use quickly and can even be used for flights to the Chinese space station.
“The new generation has reusable abilities … so the government can reduce the cost to fly to the space station,” Li explained.
Chinese space officials have stated that the country is looking to carry out crewed missions to the moon in the 2030s. Though such a project has not been approved, early development is underway for a superheavy-lift rocket, the Long March 9, similar in capabilities to NASA’s Saturn V or the American space agency’s in-development Space Launch System.
China became the third country to independently launch astronauts in 2003 when Yang Liwei orbited Earth in the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft. And while the state plans to begin soon constructing a modular space station, China is already looking beyond to eventual missions to the moon — and potentially beyond.
In recent times, China has shown to be rapidly developing its space technologies and has achieved significant achievements in a short amount of time.
One example of which is the country’s rapid small satellite development and deployment and even the country’s growing private space companies who also assist the Chinese government in its space endeavors.
Just last month, in September, Chinese space company ExPace launched a small satellite deployment spacecraft, Kuaizhou-1A, which marks the 16th launch from a Chinese-owned commercial space deployment service in 2019 alone.
More significantly, the International space community praised the China National Space Agency for its achievement in lunar exploration because it is the only country to successfully land softly on the moon within the past four decades.
In January, as part of China’s current moon mission, the country’s Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover became the first robots to operate on the far side of the moon.