Credit: CMSA

China is set to launch its first cargo resupply craft – the Tianzhou-1 – in the April 20-24th time period and is viewed by the country’s space officials as a key step toward building a larger space station in the 2020’s.

Tianzhou-1 has been transferred atop its Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket from the testing center to the launch zone in Wenchang, south China’s Hainan Province.

Chinese supply ship — Tianzhou-1 — undergoing pre-flight checks.
Credit: CMSA

According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the transfer to the launch zone took 2.5 hours.

Since February, rocket technicians have been testing both the Tianzhou-1 and the carrier rocket for the upcoming launch.

“Once the combination is transported onto the launching tower, this mission enters its final stage. At present, all work is going smoothly, and we are ready for refueling and launching,” said Mao Wanbiao, deputy commander of the command office at the launch site in a CCTV-Plus interview.

Refueling tests

Tianzhou-1 is slated to dock with the now orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab and perform a series of in-orbit refueling tests.

China’s Tiangong-2 space lab as imaged by skywatcher, Mariano Ribas.
Credit: Mariano Ribas

The Tianzhou-1 supply craft, if successfully launched, is expected to dock with the Earth-circling and now unoccupied space lab three times. During the docking, a new experiment of independent quick docking will be conducted, which requires that the two spacecraft dock with each other within six hours.

In recent video reports via CCTV-Plus, details of the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft show it to be 35 feet (10.6 meters) tall with its largest diameter at 11 feet (3.35 meters) and a weight of 13 tons. The upper part with the bigger diameter is designated as a warehouse while the lower part with smaller diameter will propel the spacecraft.

Tianzhou-1 – “heavenly vessel” — will be able to carry about five tons of cargo into space.

Optimized booster

This is the second flight of a Long March-7 booster. It completed its maiden flight mission on June 25, 2016 from the launch site in Wenchang. The Long March-7 Yao-2 type launcher has been optimized for lofting the Tianzhou-1.

Xinhua reported earlier that Tianzhou-1 will orbit on its own for about three months and together with Tiangong-2 for about two months after their rendezvous.

Tianzhou-1’s flight will check and verify such technologies as supply of goods, in-orbit re-fueling and fast automated rendezvous and docking.

With tasks completed, the autopiloted Tianzhou-1 will fall back to Earth while Tiangong-2 is to remain in orbit and continue conducting experiments.

Credit: CSIS


The Tiangong-2 space lab was occupied by the two-person crew of Shenzhou-11 last year. It was China’s sixth piloted spaceflight, and also the country’s longest mission to date, chalking up in total 33 days.

After the Shenzhou-11 liftoff on October 17, the spacecraft docked two days later with Tiangong-2. The two astronauts — Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong — lived and worked in the lab for 30 days.

For Chinese space program officials, the Tianzhou-1 resupply mission wraps up a second phase of China’s piloted space agenda and is a vital milestone for the country to establish a larger space station around 2022.

Core module

Meanwhile, China is readying a space station core module for flight in 2018, one of many segments that will comprise the orbiting complex.

Larger Chinese space station to be constructed on orbit in the 2020s.
Credit: CMSA

Assembly of that central module — named “Tianhe-1” — has already been completed and tests are currently under way, reports Bao Weimin of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC).

The Chinese space station will initially be much smaller than the current International Space Station (ISS), but could be expanded for future scientific research and international cooperation, according to the country’s space officials.

Given present plans to retire the ISS in 2024, China’s space station will be the only country with a permanent space station.

According to Bao, the larger Chinese outpost will function in orbit for “dozens of years,” adding that all key parts of the facility are designed to be serviceable and replaceable.

For a video look at the transfer of booster and supply craft at Wenchang, go to this video from China Global Television Network:×720/8iW5eHNoSbZOO999.mp4

Also, go to this CCTV-Plus video at:

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