China completed an important step for its manned space program on Friday when a prototype for its next-generation manned spacecraft successfully returned to Earth.
The unmanned prototype landed at a site in Dongfeng after being launched on Monday by the heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket. It performed tasks like changing orbit and 3D printing objects in space, which was a first for China.
The spacecraft’s successful launch and return marks the beginning of China’s effort to complete a space station, according to state media. This is the third and final step of China’s space program.
Unlike China’s last manned spacecraft, called Shenzhou, the next-generation spacecraft is protected by a replaceable heat shield and will be reusable. And while Shenzhou could only ferry three people, the new spacecraft can carry up to six astronauts and be used for both space station missions in low Earth orbit and deep-space exploration. These could include manned lunar missions, but China hasn’t disclosed any upcoming plans for sending people to the Moon.
Planned upcoming manned missions include launching the space station’s core Tianhe module, followed by two experiment modules called Wentian and Mengtian. Tianhe was expected to be launched in 2020, but China’s announcements this week didn’t mention a timeline for its launch. The T-shaped space station is expected to be completed “around 2022,” when it will support international research experiments.
Altogether, there will be 12 launch missions before the space station is completed, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office. These will include four manned missions with the Shenzhou spacecraft and four launches with the Tianzhou spacecraft that will transport cargo. The organization also said astronauts for the four manned missions have already been selected and are in training.
But the launch mission this week wasn’t completely smooth sailing. During the same launch of the spacecraft prototype, the Long March 5B also lifted an experimental cargo spacecraft. But that one failed to return to Earth during a re-entry test on Wednesday. The spacecraft, called the Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle, was expected to be an alternative cargo retrieval solution, according to China Daily.
The China Manned Space Agency said it’s analyzing available data on the spacecraft’s malfunction, but it didn’t offer more details.