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Prototype of China’s next-generation re-entry capsule lands safely in desert

Technical personnel check the re-entry module in Badain Jaran Desert in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 26, 2016.

Technical personnel check the re-entry module in Badain Jaran Desert in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 26, 2016. Photo Credit: Xinhua / Chen Bin

A scaled-down model of China’s future re-entry capsule – launched aboard the Long March 7 rocket on its inaugural flight – has successfully touched down in the Badain Jaran Desert in Northwest China. The landing occurred at exactly 3:41 a.m. EDT (07:41 GMT) on Sunday, June 26.

Before the planned landing, the module opened up parachutes to slow it down during the last phase of descent. Although the capsule was dragged across the surface for quite some distance after touchdown, the government declared the landing a complete success.

“At 15:41 (local time), by using parachute landing system, the model landed safely. Its appearance and conditions were good,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office said in a press release.

Technical personnel checks the re-entry module in Badain Jaran Desert in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 26, 2016

Technical personnel checks the re-entry module in Badain Jaran Desert in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 26, 2016. Photo Credit: Xinhua

The spacecraft was launched atop a Long March 7 booster on Saturday, June 25, at 8:00 p.m. Beijing time (12:00 GMT) from Site LC-2 at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the island of Hainan. The rocket’s upper stage, named Yuanzheng-1A (YZ-1A), was responsible for delivering the capsule into orbit and then for sending it into a re-entry trajectory for landing demonstration.

After releasing a set of smaller satellites that were carried into space by Long March 7, the YZ-1A upper stage commenced its next task of guiding the capsule through a dozen of orbits around Earth. Next, when the spacecraft spent nearly 20 hours in space, it was injected into a re-entry trajectory in order to start the landing phase.

During the re-entry, the spacecraft collected aerodynamic and heat data, to verify key technologies such as detachable thermal protection structure and lightweight metal materials manufacturing, and to carry out blackout telecommunication tests. In general, the flight tested the core technologies required for future manned space missions.

According to Chinese officials, the successful recovery of the re-entry module laid a solid foundation for the design and development of the next-generation manned spacecraft. Moreover, they noted that it also means the Long March 7 launcher has fulfilled all the objectives of its maiden flight.

The capsule’s model is about 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) high, 8.5 feet (2.6 meters) in diameter, and weighs around 2.6 metric tons. It features a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) antenna, parachutes, and an antenna specially designed to prevent radio silence during hypersonic re-entry. The spacecraft is being designed with the aim to serve as a future transportation system for cargo and crews to LEO and beyond, including possible missions to the Moon.

The Long March 7 rocket is a 174.2-foot (53.1-meter) tall two-stage launch vehicle. It was developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) and is based on the Long March 2F rocket. The nearly 600-metric ton launch vehicle is 11 feet (3.35 meters) in diameter and is capable of lifting up to 13.5 metric tons to a low-Earth orbit (LEO) and about 5.5 metric tons to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO).

Saturday’s inaugural launch of the Long March 7 also marked the first liftoff from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center; the construction of the site was completed by the end of October 2014. The center was selected for its low latitude because it will allow for a substantial increase in mass of payloads to be launched, necessary for the future crewed programs.

The maiden flight of Long March 7 was the eighth orbital mission for China this year. It was also the 230th launch of the Long March rocket series.

The country’s next mission is currently scheduled for July 2016 when a Long March 2D booster is slated to send the QUantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) technology demonstrator into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province. However, the exact date of the launch has yet to be announced.

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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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