Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

China's Shenzhou 2 capsule returns to Earth safely

Posted: January 16, 2001

An artist's concept of Shenzhou 2 separating the orbital module from the descent portion of the spacecraft. Image by Simon Zajc.
China's Shenzhou 2 returned to Earth Tuesday, bringing the country even closer to becoming only the third nation to ever place humans in space. This is China's second test flight of its prototype manned spacecraft.

Shenzhou 2 completed 108 orbits of Earth over its nearly seven-day journey. The capsule landed in Inner Mongolia at 1122 GMT (6:22 a.m. EST), landing in the same region that Shenzhou 1 landed during the inaugural test flight in November 1999.

Shenzhou 2 was launched on January 9 at 1700 GMT (12:00 p.m. EST) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in chilly northwestern China, using a CZ-2F Long March 2F rocket, which is specially modified for the Shenzhou design. The launch vehicle placed the spacecraft in a near-circular orbit with an inclination of around 42.6 degrees to the equator.

During its mission, Shenzhou 2 conducted several orbital maneuvers using its main propulsion engine on the craft's service module. The mission also conducted various experiments, some of which took advantage of several unspecified animals and microscopic cells that were carried aboard the spacecraft.

Also, Shenzhou 2's orbital module stayed in orbit while the mission's service module and re-entry module plummeted into Earth's atmosphere for their fiery re-entry. The service module is designed to burn up upon re-entry, while the re-entry module does exactly what its name implies -- safely touch down at the landing site.

The orbital module is poised to continue conducting tests for the next few months, unlike Shenzhou 1. Also on this flight, the orbital module's own set of solar arrays were to be deployed for the first time.

The Shenzhou series of spacecraft are prototypes for future manned spacecraft in China. Chinese space officials have publicly stated that they plan to put a Chinese astronaut -- dubbed "taikonaut" by some -- into orbit by 2005.

Up until recently, the Shenzhou design has been surrounded by a shroud of secrecy, but it is known that the Chinese government purchased a scaled-down version re-entry module of the Russian Soyuz manned capsule from Soyuz-builder RKK Energia.

The Shenzhou orbiter does show several tell-tale signs of similarity between itself and the Soyuz, such as the presence of solar arrays and the spacecraft containing three separate modules. However, a closer looks reveals several differences, such as the Shenzhou containing two pairs of power-producing solar arrays.

A target launch date for a possible Shenzhou 3 is currently uncertain.