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Shenzhou (spacecraft)

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Shenzhou spacecraft
Post S-7 Shenzhou spacecraft.png
Description: Diagram of the post-Shenzhou 7 spacecraft
Country: China
Role: Low-earth orbit Manned spacecraft
Crew: Three
Derived from: Soyuz
Status: In-service
First flight: Shenzhou 1, 1999
Height: 9.25 m 30.34 ft
Diameter: 2.8 m 9.10 ft
Volume: 14.00 m³ 494.4 ft³
Launch mass: 7 840 kg 17 280 lb
Rocket engines
Main engine (N2O4/MMH) : 10000 N 2248 lbf ea
Endurance: 20 days
Apogee: 324 km 201 mi
Perigee: 196 km 121.8 mi
Inclination: 42.5 degrees
Delta V: 380 m/s 1,240 ft/s

Shenzhou (Chinese: 神舟; pinyin: Shén Zhōu) is a spacecraft developed and operated by the People's Republic of China to support its manned spaceflight program. The name is variously translated as "Divine Craft," "Divine Vessel of God," "Magic Boat" or similar and is also homophonous with an ancient name for China (written 神州; meaning "Divine State"). Its design resembles the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but it is larger in size and all-new in construction. The first launch was on November 19, 1999 and the first manned launch was on October 15, 2003. In March 2005, an asteroid was named 8256 Shenzhou in honour of the spacecraft.


China's first efforts at human spaceflight started in 1968 with a projected launch date of 1973. Although China launched an unmanned satellite in 1970 and has maintained an active unmanned program since, this attempt was canceled due to lack of funds and political interest.

The first unmanned flight of the spacecraft was launched on November 19, 1999 after which Project 921/1 was renamed Shenzhou, a name reportedly chosen by Jiang Zemin. A series of three additional unmanned flights ensued. It is expected that later crafts will be designed to carry a crew of four instead of Soyuz's three, although physical limitations on astronaut size, as experienced with earlier incarnations of Soyuz, will likely apply.

Missions launched

Launch of Shenzhou 5 in 2003
  • Shenzhou 1 – November 19, 1999 – unmanned test flight
  • Shenzhou 2 – January 9, 2001 – carried animals
  • Shenzhou 3 – March 25, 2002 – carried a test dummy
  • Shenzhou 4 – December 29, 2002 – carried a test dummy and several science experiments
  • Shenzhou 5 – October 15, 2003 – 14 Earth orbits carrying Yang Liwei
  • Shenzhou 6 – October 12, 2005 – five day mission with Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng
  • Shenzhou 7 – September 25, 2008 – three man crew with Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng; spacewalk performed by two crew members
  • Shenzhou 8 – October 31, 2011 – unmanned mission carrying 2 test dummies, which rendezvoused and docked with Tiangong-1.
  • Shenzhou 9 – June 16, 2012 – three-person crew (one female), docked with Tiangong-1. The spacecraft returned to earth on 29 June 2012 with three crew members appearing in good health.

Planned missions

  • Shenzhou 10 – 2013 – three-person crew, will dock with Tiangong-1 after Shenzhou 9.
  • Shenzhou 11 – (?) – manned mission carrying crew to Tiangong-2.


The Shenzhou spacecraft resembles the Soyuz, although it is longer, with a larger habitable volume. It features a powered service module like the Soyuz, and prior to Shenzhou 8 its orbital module was capable of autonomous flight. The general designer of Shenzhou-1 thru Shenzhou-5 is Mr. Qi Faren (戚发轫, Apr 26, 1933 -), and from Shenzhou-6 on, the general designer was turned over to Mr. Zhang Bainan (张柏楠,Jun 23, 1962 -).

In 1994, Russia sold some of its advanced aviation and space technology to the Chinese. In 1995 a deal was signed between the two countries for the transfer of Russian Soyuz spacecraft technology to China. Included in the agreement was training, provision of Soyuz capsules, life support systems, docking systems, and space suits. In 1996 two Chinese astronauts, Wu Jie and Li Qinglong, began training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia. After training, these men returned to China and proceeded to train other Chinese astronauts at sites near Beijing and Jiuquan. The hardware and information sold by the Russians led to modifications of the original Phase One spacecraft, eventually called Shenzhou, which loosely translated means “divine vessel.” New launch facilities were built at the Jiuquan launch site in Inner Mongolia, and in the spring of 1998 a mock-up of the Long March 2F launch vehicle with Shenzhou spacecraft was rolled out for integration and facility tests.

Like Soyuz, Shenzhou consists of three modules: a forward orbital module (轨道舱), a reentry module (返回舱) in the middle, and an aft service module (推进舱). This division is based on the principle of minimizing the amount of material to be returned to Earth. Anything placed in the orbital or service modules does not require heat shielding, and this increases the space available in the spacecraft without increasing weight as much as it would if those modules were also able to withstand reentry. Thus both Soyuz and Shenzhou have more living area with less weight than the Apollo CSM.

Complete spacecraft data
Total mass: 7,840 kg
Length: 9.25 m
Diameter: 2.80 m
Span: 17.00 m

Orbital module

Shenzhou's Orbital Module prior to S8

The orbital module (轨道舱) contains space for experiments, crew-serviced or operated equipment, and in-orbit habitation. Without docking systems, Shenzhou 1–6 carried different kinds of payload on the top of their orbital modules for scientific experiments.

Up until Shenzhou 8, the orbital module of the Shenzhou was equipped with its own propulsion, solar power, and control systems, allowing autonomous flight. It was possible for Shenzhou to leave an orbital module in orbit for redocking with a later spacecraft, something which the Soyuz cannot do since the only hatch between orbital and reentry modules is a part of reentry module, and orbital module is depressurized after separation. In the future it is possible that the orbital module(s) could also be left behind on the planned Chinese project 921/2 space station as additional station modules.

In the unmanned test flights launched to date, the orbital module of each Shenzhou was left functioning on orbit for several days after the reentry modules return, and the Shenzhou 5 orbital module continued to operate for six months after launch.

Orbital module data
Design life: 200 days.
Length: 2.80 m (9.10 ft).
Basic diameter: 2.25 m (7.38 ft).
Maximum diameter: 2.25 m (7.38 ft).
Span: 10.40 m (34.10 ft).
Habitable volume: 8.00 m³.
Mass: 1,500 kg (3,300 lb).
RCS Coarse No x Thrust: 16 x 5 N.
RCS Propellants: Hydrazine.
Electrical system: Solar panels, 12.24 m².
Electric system: 0.50 average kW.
Electric system: 1.20 kWh.

Reentry module

The reentry module (返回舱) is located in the middle section of the spacecraft and contains seating for the crew. It is the only portion of Shenzhou which returns to Earth's surface. Its shape is a compromise between maximizing living space while allowing for some aerodynamic control upon reentry.

Reentry module data
Crew size: 3.
Design life: 20 days.
Length: 2.50 m (8.20 ft).
Basic diameter: 2.52 m (8.26 ft).
Maximum diameter: 2.52 m (8.26 ft).
Habitable volume: 6.00 m³.
Mass: 3,240 kg (7,140 lb).
Heat shield mass: 450 kg (990 lb)
RCS Coarse No x Thrust: 8 x 150 N.
RCS Propellants: Hydrazine

Service module

The aft service module (推进舱) contains life support and other equipment required for the functioning of Shenzhou. Two pairs of solar panels, one pair on the service module, the other pair on the orbital module, have a total area of over 40 m² (430 ft²), indicating average electrical power over 1.5 kW (Soyuz have 1.0 kW).

Service module data
Design life: 20 days.
Length: 2.94 m (9.65 ft).
Basic diameter: 2.50 m (8.20 ft).
Maximum diameter: 2.80 m (9.10 ft).
Span: 17.00 m (55.00 ft).
Mass: 3,000 kg (6,600 lb).
RCS Coarse No x Thrust: 8 x 150 N.
RCS Fine No x Thrust: 16 x 5 N.
RCS Propellants: N2O4/MMH, unified system with main engine.
Main engine: 4 x 2500 N.
Main engine thrust: 10.000 kN (2,248 lbf).
Main engine propellants: N2O4/MMH.
Main engine propellants: 1,000 kg (2,200 lb).
Main engine Isp: 290 sec. L/D Hypersonic: 0.30.
Electrical system: Solar panels, 24.48 + 12.24 m², 36.72 m² total.
Electric system: 1.00 average kW.
Electric system: 2.40 kWh.
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