China’s Shenzhou-16 Spacecraft Successfully Lands, Potentially Marking Three Upcoming Launches

The Shenzhou-16 spacecraft has successfully returned to Earth after a six-month stay aboard the Chinese Tiangong space station. The crew of the Shenzhou-17 has taken over operations on the space station, allowing the Shenzhou-16 crew to prepare for their return. The spacecraft landed in the Gobi Desert on Tuesday, October 31 at 00:11 UTC. This marks another milestone in China’s rapidly advancing space program.

The Shenzhou-16 mission included taikonauts Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu, and Gui Haichao, who spent nearly 154 days in orbit. Before leaving the station, they handed over operations to the Shenzhou-17 crew of Tang Hongbo, Tang Shengjie, and Jiang Xinlin. The taikonauts performed a high-resolution survey of the Tiangong space station before their departure, inspecting the exterior for signs of damage or wear.

During reentry, the descent module of the Shenzhou-16 spacecraft encountered temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius. The module detached from the docking module, and the engines on the service module conducted a deorbit burn before being released. The descent module used parachutes and fired small engines to soften the landing.

The Chinese human spaceflight program is run by the military under the China Manned Space Agency. Gui Haichao is the first civilian to fly to space aboard a Chinese spacecraft, indicating that China’s program is opening up to more participants. The program has also signed agreements with Belarus, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan to collaborate on the International Lunar Research Station, a Moon base planned for the 2030s.

In addition to the Shenzhou-16 landing, China is planning several launches this week. A Chang Zheng-4C rocket is scheduled to launch from Taiyuan on October 31. The payload for this launch is not known, but it’s speculated to be the Haiyang-2E satellite for ocean observation. The CZ-4C rocket has flown since 2006 and is capable of launching up to 2,800 kilograms to a Sun-synchronous polar orbit.

CAS Space, a Chinese commercial spaceflight company, may also conduct a launch this week. The exact date, time, and payload for this launch have not been revealed. CAS Space’s Kinetica-1 vehicle, capable of carrying up to 1.5 tonnes to a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, has already flown successfully twice since July 2022. The company is also planning an upgraded Kinetica-1A vehicle and reusable liquid-propellant rockets.

Finally, a Chang Zheng-7A rocket is scheduled to launch from Hainan Island on November 3. The payload for this launch has not been disclosed. The CZ-7A rocket is capable of carrying up to 7,000 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit or 12,000 kilograms to low-Earth orbit. This launch site is well-positioned for geostationary satellite launches and launches to other inclinations.

China’s space program continues to make significant progress, with successful crewed missions, international collaborations, and a growing commercial spaceflight sector. As China expands its presence in space, it’s poised to become a major player in the global space industry.