Tianzhou-1 supply ship.
Credit: CCTV-Plus

A key element in China’s hope to establish a permanent space station is set for liftoff on Thursday.

China’s automated Tianzhou-1 vehicle is scheduled for launch at 19:41 Thursday (local time) from Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province, officials of the Office of China’s Manned Space Program said Wednesday.

Space lab docking

The cargo spacecraft will be carried into orbit by a Long March-7 Y2 carrier booster. It made its maiden flight in June 2016.

Tianzhou-1 is expected to operate in orbit at an altitude of 380 kilometers before docking with the orbiting and currently unoccupied Tiangong-2 space lab. A major objective is to perform refueling tests of the space lab – a prelude to China maintaining a larger space complex in the 2020s.

Combo control

After entering orbit, according to CCTV-Plus, Tianzhou-1 is slated to conduct a first docking with Tiangong-2 space lab. Then the combination will have a two-month in-orbit flight to test the liquid propellant refueling as well as the cargo spaceship’s control of the combination.

Credit: CMSA

“A space station has two docking ports, forward and backward. So a cargo spacecraft must be able to dock with the station from both directions. This time Tianzhou-1 will separate from Tiangong-2’s backward port and then fly around it to dock from the forward port to examine the docking ability. This is the primary mission of the combination,” said Bai Mingsheng, chief designer of the Tianzhou-1 cargo spaceship from the China Academy of Space Technology.


After the experiment, Tianzhou-1 will separate again from Tiangong-2 space lab.

The two spacecraft will respectively fly for three months, during which the cargo spaceship will complete its own space science experiments. Then the two will have the third docking to test the automatic fast-docking technology – a test to complete the docking within six hours.

“These are new experiments,” said Bai. “A shorter docking time for manned spaceships is of great significance as it will make astronauts more comfortable,” Bai added to the CCTV-Plus interview.

China’s medium-size space station for the 2020’s is depicted in this artwork.
Credit: CNSA

Relay satellite

In related news, China’s Tianlian-1 relay satellite, through three relay routes on the Tianzhou-1, will be able to track its docking with the Tiangong-2 space lab and the propellant fuelling.

“The spacecraft is equipped with relay terminals. It now becomes less dependent on ground stations as the space-based observation and communication system works with the help of the relaying satellites,” said Zhu Ke, deputy chief designer, Tianzhou-1 Cargo Spacecraft Observation and Communication System Department, Fifth Academy of China Academy of Space Technology.

“Therefore, we can expand the system’s coverage from previous 20 percent to current 88 percent,” Zhu said in a CCTV-Plus interview.

According to Zhu, the system will also greatly accelerate the spacecraft’s communication speed.

Go to these CCTV-Plus videos regarding the upcoming launch of the supply ship and the use of the Tianlian-1 relay satellite system:

Also, go to:



Lastly, go to this informative article by Namrata Goswami:

Why China’s New Cargo Space Ship Is So Important

The Tianzhou cargo ship may not grab headlines, but it’s another step forward in China’s long-term space plan.


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