China’s Long March-5B Launch
On 05 May 2020 we watched the successful launch of China’s Long March-5B launch vehicle, but what does this mean for the Chinese space programme?
At 10:00 GMT we watched the launch via a Weibo channel from Wenchang Space Launch Center in the Hainan Province of China.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) confirmed launch success around 20 minutes after launch.
The rocket launched China’s new-generation crewed spacecraft (CMS) on a test mission, although on this occasion the capsule was uncrewed.
The CMS is designed to be reusable and it can carry both astronauts and cargo, making it the cornerstone of China’s future plans to put a space station in orbit and send an orbiter and robotic mission to Mars.
In March and April China suffered launch failures, so today’s successful launch will allow for a potential July launch date to Mars.
But the launch is not the only part of today’s tests, the all-important re-entry and checks on the heat shielding, avionics, performance in orbit, parachute deployment, a cushioned airbag landing, and recovery are all critical to the progression of this project.
The intention is to recover the craft, replace the heat shielding and complete further tests on this “reusable” spacecraft. Tests that will be completed once the CMS returns to Earth on 08 May.
“China has planned about 12 flight missions for the construction of China’s space station. The first flight mission of [the] Long March-5B rocket is also to verify its performance,” Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told state media in January.
China has already launched two space stations, Tiangong-1, which launched in 2011, and Tiangong-2, which launched in 2016.
Tiangong-1 serving as both a crewed laboratory and an experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities during its two years of active operational life, whilst Tiangong-2 was a as a testbed for key technologies that will be used in the Chinese large modular space station.
China plans to build the world’s third multi-module space station, to follow Mir and the ISS. Tianhe (‘Harmony of the Heavens’), the core module, is due for launch in 2021 and has been designed to focus on science, with a range of research possible in orbit, including astronomy, life sciences, materials sciences and combustion according to Zhou Jianping, chief designer for the crewed program.
The station will require 11 launches to complete construction, so the success of the re-entry and reuse of the craft will be vital to the mission progressing.