Tim Furniss/LONDON


China conducted the first unmanned test of its Shenzhou spacecraft on 20 November. The launch from Jiuquan was also the first to use the Long March 2F (LM2F) booster. China is planning further unmanned test flights of the Shenzhou before launching with a two-man crew on board.

The first unmanned test, in a 197km x 323km,42.6°-inclination orbit, ended after 21h, when the crew capsule landed in Inner Mongolia in northern China. The descent capsule's parachute was released at an altitude of 30km and a retro rocket fired at 1.5m (5ft) to soften the landing.

The design of Shenzhou is based on a Russian Soyuz re-entry crew capsule. The capsule is attached at the rear to a cylindrical service module with a pair of solar panels, and to a forward cylindrical orbital module, also with two solar panels and a docking port.

Images of the orbital module being prepared for the mission show that it was equipped with what appears to be folded dummy solar panels, which were not deployed during the flight. The orbital module was discarded in flight before the service module's main retro rocket fired. The service module was then deployed, allowing the Soyuz-type capsule to make its controlled re-entry.

The LM2F is an uprated version of the LM2E, including improvements to the propellants and incorporating a Russian Soyuz-like emergency escape rocket. The total lift-off weight of the Shenzhou is believed to be 8,400kg (18,500lb).

China becomes the third nation to test an unmanned spacecraft designed for manned operations in orbit, after the USSR and the USA.

The first Soviet Vostok to make a successful orbital test flight was launched in August 1960.

Source: Flight International