long march 5.JPG

credit CCTV9 / caption: China’s LOX/LH2 fuelled Long March 5 rocket animation 

Members of China’s Manned Space Engineering office (which seems to be an organisation operated jointly by the China National Space Administration and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)) visited the UK recently

Hyperbola has gleaned a few details from their discussions here and can confirm that other reports of a spacelab module called Tiangong-1 being launched around 2011 with subsequent dockings by Shenzhou craft are broadly correct

China’s Shenzou spacecraft is 13% larger than the Russian Soyuz, the spacecraft is evolving as mission demands change and its next few missions will be about using the new spacelab Tiangong-1

From 2011 Tiangong-1 will lead to a “growing experimental research facility” that Shenzhou’s orbital modules could dock with and remain attached to the space lab after the re-entry capsules have returned to Earth. The Shenzhou missions 8, 9 and 10 are expected to carry out this orbital module docking

The new liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen fuelled Long March 5 rocket, expected to be in operation by 2015, will be used to orbit larger 20,000kg-plus modules for what is likely to be a Mir-like Chinese space station that would be in operation by 2020

Whether this means the first module will be launched in 2020 or if it will see Tiangong-1 becoming the “Zarya/Unity” module for the envisaged space station, with additional modules added from 2015 once the Long March 5 is flying is not clear 


China has no immediate plans to select more astronauts until the permanent station was due to be launched (makes sense with a 2020 launch as ESA has astronaut selection every 10-years or so) and these future astronauts were likely to be engineers and scientists, not PLA pilots; a welcome move to a less militaristic manned space programme

There was a suggestion that the Long March 5 could enable a lunar sling-shot or orbital mission as Shenzou is said to have a 10-day spaceflight capability with three astronauts onboard. Does this mean that Long March 5 is to be “man rated” or would it be a double launch with a Long March 2F launching a Shenzhou after a Long March 5 launched an EDS? However there were also questions about Shenzou’s lunar return heat-shield and re-entry capabilities for lunar missions

Although the PLA has significant involvement in the manned space programme it is now under the control of the office of the Prime Minister