The CZ-2F (Y11) launch vehicle carrying the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft with its crew lifted off from Pad 921 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre at 07:30:31 CST (23:30:31 UTC on 16 October). Commander Jing Haipeng occupied the central seat in the spacecraft’s re-entry module, and flight engineer Chen Dong was seated on his right.
At T+0 second, the 58 m-tall, 480 tonne-mass CZ-2F launch vehicle ignited all four main engines in its core vehicle as well as the four strap-on boosters, producing a total thrust of 5,923 kN (604 tonnes). Shortly after the vehicle cleared the launch tower (T+12 seconds), it pitched over towards downrange to fly along an ascent trajectory with its orbital plane inclined at about 42.5° to the Equator.
At T+120 seconds, the launch escape tower atop the launch vehicle’s payload fairing was jettisoned at an altitude of about 39 km.
At T+155 seconds, the four strap-on boosters were jettisoned, immediately followed by main engines cut-off and the first-stage separation at T+160 seconds. The second-stage fired its engines to continue flying for another 7 minutes. At T+210 seconds, the two-piece payload fairing was jettisoned as the vehicle was flying above the dense atmosphere.
At T+7 minutes 40 seconds, the second-stage’s main engine was cut off, and the stage continued flying on its four small-thrust motors for another two minutes.
At T+9 minutes 42 seconds, the small-thrust motors were cut off. 3 seconds later, as the Shenzhou spacecraft reached a velocity of 7.5 km per second, it separated from the second-stage and entered a 200 km by 350 km initial parking orbit. Over the next 48 hours, the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft will make several orbital elevation manoeuvres to catch up with the Tiangong 2 space laboratory module flying on a 393 km near circular orbit, before performing an orbital rendezvous docking.
China’s last manned mission was Shenzhou 10 in June 2013, when a crew of three astronauts spent 10 days aboard the Tiangong 1 space laboratory module. Over the next three years, the China Manned Space Programme began to prepare for the next space laboratory mission Tiangong 2, with the objective to demonstrate medium-term orbital living and cargo/fuel resupply capability.
In February, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) announced that it would conduct a series of launch missions in 2016-17 for the Tiangong 2 project, including the test flight of the CZ-7 launch vehicle in June, the Tiangong 2 space laboratory in the third quarter of the year, the Shenzhou 11 manned spaceflight mission in the fourth quarter, and the Tianzhou 1 cargo resupply experiment mission in early 2017.
The objectives of the Shenzhou 11 mission is to demonstrate medium-term orbital living and to carry out large-scale space science and applications experiments. Two astronauts will live and work on the Tiangong 2 space laboratory module for 30 days – a new mission duration record in the history of China’s human spaceflight programme.
The Shenzhou 11 launch campaign began in early August, with the arrival of the CZ-2F (Y11) launch vehicle at the launch site on 3 August, following a 2,000 km railway journey from the rocket fabrication plant in Beijing. The rocket segments were first processed in the Launch Vehicle Horizontal Processing Building in the launch centre’s technical area, before being moved to the Launch Vehicle Vertical Processing Building for assembly.
The Shenzhou 11 spacecraft vehicle was transported in special containers by a military cargo plane to the Dingxin Airbase on 13 August, before making a 76 km journey by road to the launch site. Upon its arrival, the spacecraft was first assembled inside the Spacecraft Non-Hazardous Operation Building in the technique area. It then made a transit to the Spacecraft Hazardous Operation Building for the process of fuelling with liquid propellants and loading of pressurised gases.
The assembled and fuelled spacecraft was then integrated with its payload fairing, before moving to the Launch Vehicle Horizontal Processing Building for integration with the launch vehicle and launch escape tower.
Countdown to Launch
The completed CZ-2F/Shenzhou 11 stack was rolled out to launch pad on Monday 10 October. The launch vehicle sat vertically atop a 750-tonne-mass mobile launcher platform, which moves on a 20 m-wide rail track at a low speed of 25 metres per minute. It would take the platform an hour to complete the 1,500 m journey from the vehicle assembly building to the launch pad.
The prime and backup crews for the mission arrived at the launch centre several days before the scheduled launch. They took part in an all-system launch rehearsal inside the Shenzhou 11 vehicle on the launch pad on Thursday 13 October.
The Chinese media was unusually quiet about the launch preparation, with no news coverage about the launch vehicle rollout or arrival of the crews at the launch centre. The identify of the two astronauts for the mission crew was kept under secrecy until the last minute. Finally, only 22 hours before the scheduled launch time, a press conference was held at 09:00 CST on Sunday 16 October in the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre to disclose details of the mission and the identify of the two astronauts in the prime crew.
At the same time as the press conference was underway, the launch vehicle sitting on the launch pad began the irreversible process of fuelling with oxidiser (Dinitrogen Tetroxide, or N2O4) and fuel (Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine, or UDMH). The fuelling of the launch vehicle’s 12 propellant tanks normally takes about 6 to 7 hours to complete.
At about 04:30 CST, the two astronauts in their pressure suit attended a simple farewell ceremony and were met by General Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, inside the Astronaut Apartment at the main administrative base (Site 10, or Dongfeng Space City) of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. Just before 05:00 CST, the two emerged in the courtyard outside the Astronaut Apartment and boarded a minibus for a 15-minute journey to the launch site 6.5 km away.
The astronauts’ motorcade arrived at the bottom of the launch tower at about 05:10 CST (21:10 UTC). The two astronauts and their assistants took an internal elevator to reach the top-level of the launch tower, where they entered the spacecraft vehicle via a large hatch on the side of the payload fairing. The two astronauts first climbed into the spacecraft’s orbital module through a cylindrical hatch on the side of the module, and then climb down to enter the re-entry module via a second hatch.
2-hour countdown to launch began at 05:30 CST (21:30 UTC). The two crew members also began their pre-flight checks inside the Shenzhou 11 re-entry capsule. By 05:45, the checks had completed and the two astronauts strapped themselves onto the moulded seats inside the module and put down the visor on their helmet, waiting patiently for the final moment for lift-off. Their conditions were monitored by the launch mission control via video and biotelemetry links.
The Chinese space authority had kept the identities of the Shenzhou 11 mission crew under secrecy until the news conference only 22 hours prior to launch. The prime crew included Command Major General Jing Haipeng and Flight Engineer Lieutenant Colonel Chen Dong.
This is third flight mission of 50-year-old Jing, who joined the Chinese Astronaut Group in 1998. He first flew in September 2008 on the Shenzhou 7 mission, though he did not take part in the extravehicular activity (EVA) and remained inside the re-entry module of the spacecraft throughout the spacewalk. In June 2012, he flew again on the Shenzhou 9 mission as Commander.
38-year-old former military pilot Chen Dong joined the Chinese Astronaut Group in 2010. He remained anonymous until June this year, when he was one of the two Chinese astronauts who went to the Italian island of Sardinia for the European Space Agency (ESA)’s annual two-week CAVES (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills) programme, which involved exploration of underground caves along with astronauts from the ESA, JAXA, Roscosmos, and NASA. Chen was a backup to his teammate Ye Guangfu, another member of the 2010 Astronaut Group, and did not directly participate the exploration.