Third test flight of China's space capsule underway

Posted: March 26, 2002

Chinese plans to put a man in space moved closer to reality Monday with the launch of their third unmanned prototype Shenzhou spacecraft on a test flight.

An artist's concept of Shenzhou in orbit. Image by Simon Zajc.

The launch took place at 1415 GMT (9:15 a.m. EST) aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in northwestern China. Reports say that Shenzhou 3 entered its expected orbit around ten minutes after liftoff.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin watched the launch from a viewing location at Jiuquan, the People's Daily said.

Shenzhou 3 will orbit for several days conducting a series of scientific experiments before its re-entry capsule is jettisoned for return to Earth. The orbital section of the spacecraft will stay in orbit for up to six months carrying out other studies, the Xinhua news agency reported.

Unlike the previous flight, Shenzhou 3 reportedly does not carry a monkey, but it has not been confirmed if the mission includes other animals.

Instead, Shenzhou 3 carries a dummy human torso that is instrumented with a host of monitoring devices that will measure various mock medical conditions. Officials say that the simulated human approach will yield more accurate data on the livable environment of the spacecraft than an animal would.

Other scientific goals of the mission include life sciences, materials science, microgravity, physics, and astronomy studies, the People's Daily said.

Shenzhou 3 also carries a satellite, but no other details were included in a report by the Wen Wei Po newspaper of Hong Kong. It is unclear if and when the satellite will be released into its own orbit.

Overall, the design of Shenzhou 3 has been improved over previous models to provide better safety.

According to the state-owned Wen Wei Po, an official said that manned flights of a Shenzhou variant could take place in the "not distant future." Some experts believe that this first Chinese manned spaceflight could take place as early as late 2003 after perhaps one or two more unmanned test flights. The next mission -- called Shenzhou 4 -- is expected to fly later this year.

A manned flight would make China the third nation after Russia and the U.S. to place a human into space.

Reports have said that a group of 'taikonauts' have been in training in China and Russia for future flights into space.

The first Shenzhou flight in November 1999 took less than a day. Shenzhou 2 was launched in January 2001 and the return capsule re-entered the atmosphere a week later, although the orbital capsule remained in orbit for months to conduct more experiments.

Physically, the Shenzhou craft is similar in size and design to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Like the Soyuz, the Shenzhou consists of three main modules -- an orbital module, a re-entry capsule, and a service module with the spacecraft's primary propulsion system. Earlier Shenzhou models have weighed around 17,000 pounds and have included solar arrays for electricity production.