Shenzhou 11 crew returns to Earth after month in space
China’s Shenzhou 11 spacecraft successfully landed on Friday, Nov. 18, in Inner Mongolia with two taikonauts aboard, completing the country’s longest crewed mission to date. The re-entry module touched down at 1:59 p.m. local time (12:59 a.m. EST / 05:59 GMT).
Shenzhou 11 commander Jing Haipeng and flight engineer Chen Dong returned home after a month-long stay in orbit, a trip packed with various tests and science experiments. The crew launched into space on Oct. 17 atop a Long March 2F booster and docked with the Tiangong 2 orbital laboratory two days later.
“The success of this mission demonstrates that China has acquired the capability to support long stays in space by astronauts,” said Huang Weifen, a deputy chief designer with the Astronaut Center of China.
The mission is an important milestone for China’s space program, bringing the country closer to building its own permanent space station. Shenzhou 11 and Tiangong 2 allowed the testing of key technologies in preparation for sending a larger station module into orbit. Ultimately, this new space station is expected to be built sometime between 2018 and 2022.
According to Zhang Gaoli, China’s Vice Premier, the completion of the Tiangong 2 and Shenzhou 11 mission “marked a major breakthrough” in China’s manned space program. He said their aerospace industry has implemented the innovation-driven development and civil-military integration strategies.
Haipeng and Dong lived inside Tiangong 2’s “experiment cabin” for 30 days. It served as the crew’s quarters and, as the name suggests, allows taikonauts to conduct experiments and research.
The crew worked eight hours a day, six days per week to carry out numerous studies regarding human physiology and plant growth, and various technical demonstrations including spacecraft rendezvous and docking operations.
The taikonauts also deployed a small satellite into space, known as BanXing 2. The spacecraft, developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), weighs around 88 pounds (40 kilograms). It was used for obtaining high-resolution images of the Tiangong 2 laboratory with its 25-megapixel camera.
Before departing the space laboratory, Haipeng and Dong had a video conference with reporters and Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the link-up, the taikonauts had a chance to send best wishes and thanks to their ground support teams.
With their gear packed and spacesuits on, the crew was ready to enter the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft on Nov. 17. After the ingress into the vehicle’s re-entry capsule, they sealed the hatches between Shenzhou 11 and Tiangong 2, commencing leak checks necessary for a safe departure. The undocking of the spacecraft occurred at 12:41 p.m. China Standard Time (04:41 GMT) on Nov 17 (11:41 p.m. EST on Nov. 16).
One day later, after coasting away from Tiangong 2, Shenzhou 11 performed its de-orbit burn. Not long after that, at about 1:11 p.m. China Standard Time (12:11 a.m. EST / 05:11 GMT), the capsule carrying the duo of taikonauts separated from the orbital and propulsion modules. Only the capsule is designed to return to Earth intact.
The re-entry module hit the atmosphere about 18 minutes after separation. Not long after peak heating subsided, at approximately 1:47 p.m. local time (12:47 a.m. EST / 05:47 GMT) the spacecraft opened up its parachutes to significantly slow it down, ensuring a flawless and safe landing. The module touched down about 12 minutes later at the expected site.
Almost immediately after landing, the ground search team arrived at the landing spot, securing the site. The taikonauts opened the capsule’s hatch by themselves and were reported by the ground team to be in good condition after the successful landing. They were then transported to Beijing for a quarantine and medical check-ups.
The completed Shenzhou 11 mission was the first spaceflight for Dong and the third orbital mission for Haipeng – who has previously flown into space in September 2008 aboard the Shenzhou 7 and, in June 2012, serving as the commander of the Shenzhou 9 mission.
China’s Future in Space
After the successful Shenzhou 11 landing, Weifen revealed some information about the country’s future spacefarers. He said that the third round of astronaut selection will start in 2017. The selection process will pick candidates from air force pilots, space engineers and technical staff in aerospace-related fields.
China’s human spaceflight program dates back to 1990s when the first Shenzhou spacecraft (uncrewed) was sent into space in November 1999. The Shenzhou 5 mission, launched in October 2003, was China’s first crewed spaceflight. The spacecraft carried Yang Liwei into orbit for about 21 hours, making him the first Chinese national to fly into space. The country’s last crewed vehicle, Shenzhou 10, was launched from Chinese soil in June 2013.
The Shenzhou 11 crewed vehicle has a mass of about 8.1 metric tons and is composed of an orbital module, a return module, and an engineering module. Although developed indigenously by China, the spacecraft’s design is based on the Russian Soyuz capsule.
The Tiangong 2 space laboratory is 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of 11 feet (3.35 meters). With a mass of 8.5 metric tons, it can accommodate two taikonauts for up to 30 days. The module is similar in size to its predecessor Tiangong 1 as it was initially planned to be used as a backup for the first laboratory.
Tiangong 2 enables testing of key technologies before sending a larger module into orbit. Besides being visited by the Shenzhou 11 crew, a new unpiloted cargo ship called Tianzhou 1 will remotely dock to the lab sometime in April 2017. It will test autonomous fuel transfer between the two spacecraft.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.