In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of details emanating from China about its ambitious space plans, notably its objective to land taikonauts on the moon. A significant development within these plans involves a next-generation spacecraft set to play a crucial role in the future construction of China’s space station and its lunar mission.
The pursuit of a manned moon landing forms a key part of the ongoing space race between the US and China. In light of this, China has been increasingly transparent about its lunar plans, recently unveiling a meticulous plan to land on our planet’s natural satellite. Among the updates, Yang Liwei, the deputy chief designer of China’s manned space programme, announced the forthcoming introduction of a next-generation spacecraft, which he stated, “will also play a key role in the future construction of China’s space station and moon landing mission.”
As per the South China Morning Post, citing Chinese sources, the new spacecraft will boast reusability in both Earth orbit and deep space exploration missions. It will be designed to house seven Taikonauts on board. Worth noting is the resemblance of this craft to American capsules, such as SpaceX’s Dragon, in terms of capabilities. Yet, the Chinese spacecraft is poised to dwarf its American counterpart, measuring 8.8 metres and weighing in at 21.6 tons.
The prototype of the capsule was test-launched in 2020 using Long March 5 rockets. Reportedly, the technology aced all the tests. At present, China relies on its Shenzhou vessels for manned spaceflights, transporting Taikonauts and supplies to the Chinese space station Tiangong. However, the new technology, primed for use on China’s lunar landing project, is anticipated to outperform Shenzhou’s efficiency, mainly due to innovative materials that render it three to four times more heat resistant. This state-of-the-art vessel is yet to be named, with the first flight planned for 2027.
China’s recently disclosed lunar landing blueprint features a two-launcher approach to deploy the lander and the capsule with Taikonauts separately. The Chinese lander and spacecraft will enter the lunar orbit and dock together. The Taikonauts will then transition from the capsule to the lander, making their descent to the moon’s surface. Post-research and sample collection, the astronauts will return to the orbit-bound module to be transported back to the spacecraft. Notably, plans do not include the lander’s return to Earth.
China’s adoption of the dual carrier rockets bypasses the obstacle of developing a single, heavy system that would bear the weight of both the lander and the crewed spacecraft, capable of reaching lunar orbit. However, this doesn’t mean that China has fully written off plans for such a missile system. It’s worth remembering that China’s lunar strategy encompasses the establishment of a permanent research facility on the moon, the construction of which necessitates a robust support system capable of handling heavy materials.