Spaceflight Insider

Chinese Long March 2D rocket launches retrievable research spacecraft

A Long March 2D rocket carrying the Shijian 10 satellite blasts off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China's Gansu Province, Apr. 5, 2016.

A Long March 2D rocket carrying the Shijian 10 satellite blasts off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China’s Gansu Province, Apr. 5, 2016. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Jin Liwang

China successfully launched a retrievable research spacecraft on Tuesday, April 5, to perform various scientific experiments in space. The satellite, known as Shijian 10, or SJ-10, lifted off atop a Long March 2D rocket at 1:38 p.m. EDT (17:38 GMT) from the Launch Area 4 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in northwest China’s Gansu Province.

The spacecraft was put into a low-Earth orbit (137 × 300 miles), inclined 63 degrees, and will stay in space for two weeks to conduct research. The return capsule will land at Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia, which is the designated landing spot for Chinese manned orbital missions, whereas an orbital module will remain in space to carry out further studies. Due to the design and retrievable nature of the mission, the launch vehicle didn’t need to include a protective payload fairing.

Artist's concept of the Shijian 10 spacecraft in space.

Artist’s concept of the Shijian 10 spacecraft in space. Image Credit: NSSC

The car-sized spacecraft has a launch mass of about 3.6 metric tons and is capable of carrying up to 1,320 lbs. (600 kg) of payload. It has a conical shape and is based on the FSW satellite bus. The craft is powered by batteries instead of solar panels.

Shijian 10 carries 19 experiments involving microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion, space material, space radiation effect, microgravity biological effect, and space biotechnology.

There are six experiments relating to fluid physics, three pertaining to combustion, and eight of materials science in the field of physical science, three experiments of radiation biology, three dealing with gravitational biology, and four of biotechnology in the field of life science.

They were selected from some 200 applications and come from six Chinese Universities and collaborations with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Perhaps one of the best-known experiments onboard Shijian 10 is the Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil (SCCO) study. This research is a partnership between ESA, China’s National Space Science Centre, France’s Total oil company, and China’s PetroChina oil company. It consists of six sturdy cylinders, each containing just one milliliter of crude oil but compressed up to 500 times the normal pressure at sea level on Earth and heated on one end and cooled on the other to look at a diffusion process ongoing in Earth’s oil reservoirs. According to ESA, SCCO will measure how hydrocarbon molecules redistribute when the temperature is not uniform.

“The experiment is designed to sharpen our understanding of deep crude oil reservoirs up to eight kilometers underground,” explained Antonio Verga, overseeing the project for ESA.

The Space experiment of Evaporation and Fluid Interfacial Effects (EFILE), designed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), will study the thermocapillary effect at the liquid-gas phase-change interface on evaporation in the space environment. By injection of a liquid droplet on the heating subtract, two kinds of sessile drop evaporation processes are planned to be investigated by the scientists.

Other physical experiments that were carried into space include ignition and burning of solid materials in microgravity and also a study on colloidal assembling.

The Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil experiment.

The Soret Coefficient in Crude Oil experiment. Photo Credit: ESA–A. Verga

Among the investigations in the field of life sciences is the development of mouse embryos in space. This experiment, overseen by CAS, will culture 2-cell or 4-cell stages of the embryos in a specialized instrument for about 96 hours. A part of the samples will be viewed by microscope to obtain the morphologies of various stages of early embryos in space, and the others will be returned after chemical fixation to study the mechanism of how the space environment affects mouse early embryo development. The main objective of this study is to determine whether early mammalian embryo can develop in outer space or not.

Shijian-10 also hosts experiments investigating molecular biology mechanism of space radiation mutagenesis and the roles of space radiation on genomic DNA and its genetic effects. One of the studies will analyze biological effects and the signal transduction of  microgravity stimulation in plants.

“All experiments conducted on Shijian 10 are completely new ones that have never been done before either at home or abroad,” said Hu Wenrui, chief scientist of the Shijian 10 mission.

The Shijian program started with the launch of the Shijian 1 satellite in 1971. The project includes various orbital flights for the demonstration of new technical systems for use on spacecraft as well as scientific missions. The first recoverable spacecraft in the series was Shijian 8, launched in 2006. The current Shijian 10 program was initiated in 2008 for the phases of space experiments selection, engineering preparations of space techniques and scientific facilities designs. However, the program was stopped before the starting of the engineering phase and was restarted again in 2011.

China’s first recoverable satellite was launched in 1975 and so far 24 recoverable satellites have been launched and recovered by the country.

The Long March 2D, used for Tuesday’s mission, is a two-stage rocket developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology. It is mainly used to launch satellites to LEO. The 135 ft. (41.15 m) tall booster can launch payloads of up to 3.5 metric tons to LEO and has a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) capability of up to 1.3 metric tons.

The rocket was launched for the first time on Aug. 9, 1992, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center orbiting the Fanhui Shei Weixing FSW-2-1 recoverable satellite.

Tuesday’s flight was the 226th flight of the Long March rocket series. It was also the first orbital launch from the Jiuquan Satellite launch Center in 2016 and the fourth mission China has planned for this year.

China’s next flight is currently planned for June when a new version of the Long March booster will conduct its maiden flight. It will also be the first launch conducted from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, located on the Hainan Island, in southern China.


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.

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