The Chinese spacecraft Shenzhou-11 – and most importantly its crew of two taikonauts – have successfully returned to Earth after China’s longest crewed mission into space. The spacecraft undocked from the Tiangong-2 space module on Thursday, ahead of a Friday touchdown in Mongolia.
China has wide-ranging ambitions in space, along with the political will and an army of engineers. However, they are still way behind the two major space powers – the United States and Russia – from an experience standpoint.
Along with a busy manifest of satellite launches, the Chinese’s immediate goals are to construct an orbital outpost.
The success of the Tiangong-1 space module – along with its three Shenzhou missions – paved the way for this near-term goal, which also allowed for the Chinese to mature and test their rendezvous and docking procedures.
The fact they were making debut attempts at this vital component of orbital outpost construction, decades after the United States and Russia had mastered it, pointed the amount of catching up the Chinese have to achieve.
Building on the success of that mission, the Chinese launched the Tiangong-2 space module, to which this latest crewed mission successfully docked with last month.
Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong – launched via the Long March 2F/G (Y11) rocket from Pad 921 at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center’s LC43 Launch Complex – then took residency of the module for a month-long mission. This was a large increase on the Taingong-1 mission durations.
The duo, conducting the six crewed mission for China, carried out numerous experiments and spoke with the Chinese president during the flight days.
Although there weren’t the flagship milestones enjoyed with Tiangong-1, the duo built on their nation’s fledgling human space flight experience by conducting medical examinations, including on-orbit examinations of the crew’s hearts, lungs and biochemistry conditions, as well as providing effective prevention against space motion sickness.
For this, equipment ranging from a bicycle ergometer to a chest developer and neuromuscular electrical stimulation were on board Tiangong-2 to protect the taikonauts against weightlessness and maintain their cardiac and muscular functions.
With their docked mission complete, hatch closure between the space module and the Shenzhou-11 was conducted on Thursday ahead of their return to Earth.
The crew then entrusted their safe return inside the Soyuz-like spacecraft that consists of the Orbital Module – which has a length of 2.80 meters, a mass of 1,500 kg and a diameter of 2.25 meters.
The Service Module – which has a length of 3.05 meters, a mass of 3.000 kg and a maximum diameter of 2.80 meters – is equipped with two solar panels for power generation (1.5 W) and each panel is 2.0 meters by 7.0 meters.
The module was equipped with the Shenzhou main propulsion system that consists of four high-thrust main engines and 24 smaller-thrust control engines, as well as four 230-litre propellant tanks containing a total of 1,000kg N2O4/MMH liquid propellant.
The four main engines (2.5kN) are located at the base of the spacecraft’s Service Module. The spacecraft also used eight (in four pairs) 150N pitch and yaw thrust vectors, eight (in four pairs) 5N pitch and yaw thrust vectors and eight (in four pairs) 5N roll / translation thrust vectors. It conducted the deorbit burn without issue.
Both the SM and the OM separated – just like Soyuz – following the deorbit burn, allowing for the re-entry module to make the plunge towards Entry Interface.
The reentry module – which has a length of 2.50 meters, a mass of 3,240 kg and a diameter of 2.52 meters – is equipped with a heat shield with a mass of 450 kg. It also provided its critical role without issue.
Live coverage on Chinese State TV showed what appeared to be a nominal entry profile, followed by parachute deploy as advertised.
The Shenzhou-11 successfully landed in Inner Mongolia at 05:47 UTC on Friday, which was followed by the extraction of the crew.
(Images via CCTV)