China Launches New Rocket from New Launch Site, New Space Station Next - UPDATE
China successfully conducted the first launch of its new mid-sized Long March 7 rocket from the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island today (June 25). One of the payloads is a scale model of a new crew spacecraft which is expected to return to Earth tomorrow. [UPDATE: it landed at 07:41 GMT on June 26.] This is the beginning of a busy period for China that includes the launch of a new small space station and a crew later this year, plus the inaugural launch of its largest rocket, Long March 5.
The Long March 7 lifted off from Wenchang at 12:00 GMT June 25 (8:00 am Eastern Daylight Time; 8:00 pm local time at the launch site).
Wenchang is China's fourth space launch site. Located on Hainan Island, it has the advantages of being closest to the equator, which is beneficial for satellites travelling to geostationary orbit, and debris from the launch falls into the ocean instead of on land. The other three sites are inland: Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert; Xichang, near Chengdu; and Taiyuan, south of Beijing. China plans to use Wenchang for launches of the Long March 7 and the new Long March 5, expected to makes its debut this year, too.
Long March 7 is a mid-sized rocket (13.5 metric tons to LEO), while Long March 5 will be China's most capable rocket ever at 25 metric tons to LEO. (The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV, which can place 28.4 metric tons into LEO.) Among China's plans are launches of a new small space station, Tiangong-2, later this year, and a larger space station in the future (announced dates vary from 2020 to 2023). Long March 7 is envisioned for launches of space station cargo resupply missions.
China had inaugural launches of two new rockets last year, both at the smaller end of the capability scale (Long March 6 and Long March 11) from existing launch sites. The newer Long March rockets use more environmentally friendly fuel and are intended eventually to replace the older models (Long March 2, 3 and 4).
China's official news agency, Xinhua, reported June 25 that the Tiangong-2 launch is scheduled for September and a two-person crew will be launched to it in November (other Chinese reports say October) on the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. In April 2017, a new cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, will be sent there as well. Tiangong-2 and Tianzhou-1 both apparently will be launched from Wenchang, while crews will continue to be launched from Jiuquan, although Chinese reports are inconsistent on the launch vehicle and launch site for Tiangong-2.
China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1, in 2011. Two crews visited it in 2012 and 2013. It ceased operating in March 2016; China has not indicated whether its reentry will be controlled or uncontrolled. It is a very small space station, just 8.5 metric tons. By comparison, the world's first space station, the Soviet Union's Salyut 1, launched in 1971, had a mass of 18.5 metric tons. The first U.S. space station, Skylab, launched in 1973, has a mass of 77 metric tons. Today's International Space Station has a mass of about 400 metric tons and has been permanently occupied by crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules since 2000.
China plans a 60 metric ton space station in the future. Dates vary from 2020-2023. China has launched a total of five crews into space since 2003. SpacePolicyOnline.com has a fact sheet listing all of China's human spaceflight launches, including tests that began in 1999.
This launch placed a scale model of a new crew spacecraft in orbit. It made 13 orbits of the Earth and landed near Jiuquan at 07:41 GMT on June 26 (3:41 pm local time; 3:41 am EDT). Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report tweeted (@planet4589) that the name of the payload is "Subscale Multipurpose Return Capsule."
ChinaSpaceflight tweeted a photo of the capsule before launch.
China has not announced when the new crew spacecraft itself will be introduced.
The Long March 7 launch also is carrying four small spacecraft. McDowell identifies them as Aolong 1, Aoxiang Zhixing, Tiange feixingqi 1 and 2. They are attached to the Long March 7's third stage, YZ-1A, which has another experiment, In-Orbit Refueling Experiment Device, attached to it, McDowell reports.
Note: This article was updated on June 27 with the landing time for the subscale crew capsule and information that Chinese news sources conflict about the launch vehicle and site for Tiangong-2. Some sources state that it will be from Wenchang, but a June 25 Xinhua story states that it will be launched from Jiuquan on a Long March 2F, which makes sense since it is similar to Tiangong-1, which was launched that way. Chinese sources are also inconsistent as to whether Shenzhou-11 will be launched in October or November.
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