China’s first reusable spacecraft will be launched as soon as 2027, according to the deputy chief engineering designer of the country’s manned space program.
Yang Liwei, who was the first Chinese sent into space, also told Guangzhou Daily on Monday that the new spacecraft would be able to transport seven astronauts.
“It will also play a critical role in future construction of China’s space station and moon landing mission,” Yang was quoted as saying.
According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the spacecraft will be reusable for both near-Earth orbit and deep-space exploration missions.
A full-size prototype successfully completed a 67-hour test flight, carried by a Long March 5 rocket, in 2020.
It uses new materials and structures that take its heat resistance to three to four times that of China’s Shenzhou spacecraft.
The materials can withstand temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit during re-entry, while the weight of the heat-resistant structure has been reduced by more than 30 per cent.
The spacecraft has also been designed to be reused – the return capsule will be ready for the next mission once it is examined and its “coating” replaced. That means – theoretically at least – key parts of the spacecraft can be reused up to 10 times, significantly reducing launch costs.
Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s manned space programme, told state broadcaster CCTV last month that the latest design retained a “blunt bullet-head shape” but the internal space is larger than previous versions.
“The design has been streamlined from three compartments to two, making it safer and more economical,” he said.
With the capacity to carry seven astronauts, it will be comparable to the new generation of American manned spacecraft – SpaceX’s Dragon V2 and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. NASA’s Orion MPCV carries six.
At 8.8 metres and weighing 21.6 tonnes it is also twice the size of the Dragon V2, which weighs about 9.5 tons.
The new spacecraft will be used for China’s crewed moon landing programme, working with a separate landing spaceship, specialised lunar spacesuits, manned rovers and other equipment to achieve this goal by 2030.
It has not yet been named. The China Manned Space Engineering Office said on its official WeChat page on Friday that a competition would soon be launched to name the new-generation spacecraft as well as the new lunar landing spaceship.
The office on Monday also put out a call to universities, research institutions and tech companies to submit scientific payloads to be taken to the moon with the lander by 2030.