China's next-generation crew capsule successfully returned to Earth today (May 8) after nearly three days in orbit.
The capsule, which has not yet been named, launched on a Long March 5B rocket on May 5 on an uncrewed test flight that represents an important step toward China's goal of building a space station in orbit.
The capsule landed today at 1:49 p.m. local time in Beijing (1:49 a.m. EDT, 0549 GMT), having spent two days and 19 hours orbiting Earth, according to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a state-owned contractor for the space agency.
During its flight, the capsule executed seven trajectory maneuvers, reaching a maximum altitude of about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers). The landing procedure began about two hours before touchdown and tested important components like the heat shield, parachutes and air cushions.
The capsule is designed to hold six or seven astronauts at a time and is meant to facilitate exploration in low Earth orbit and beyond; the capsule could one day carry astronauts to the moon, according to Chinese government news service Xinhua. The capsule and its cylindrical service module together stand about 30 feet (9 meters) tall and nearly 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, according to CGTN.
According to comments released before this week's launch, a successful test flight would open the door to a slate of 11 missions revolving around space station construction. The Long March 5B rocket is an upgraded version of China's heavy-lift Long March 5 and will be the go-to booster to launch space station modules. During this week's test flight, the rocket also launched an experimental inflatable prototype for cargo reentry, but that vehicle suffered an "abnormal" return to Earth during its test, Chinese space officials have said.
China has previously launched humans aboard its Shenzhou space capsules, but the new design includes several improvements, according to Xinhua, including a larger contiguous space for living and working and large electronic display screens.
The new capsule, which the government initiated research on in January 2017, is also designed to be reusable.
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