Image from first refueling test as craft approached space lab in April.
Credit: CGTM

China’s Tianzhou-1 robotic cargo spacecraft has released a CubeSat.

The Xinhua news agency reports the test deployment is showcasing China’s intentions to use the country’s future space station to launch more micro/nanosatellites and provide other in-orbit services.

Signals from the CubeSat were received by ground technicians right after the release, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC).

The Tianzhou-1 supply craft toting the CubeSat rocketed from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on April 20. After 104 days, the CubeSat was released by the cargo spacecraft, the Xinhua story notes.

Noted space analyst, Phil Clark, tells Inside Outer Space that the CubeSat deployment was 07:03 UT on August 1 and the 3U CubeSat is called Silu (“Silk Road”) 1.

Artist’s drawing of CubeSat deployment from China’s resupply craft.
Credit: CGTN

Refueling in Earth orbit

China’s Tianzhou-1 has repeatedly linked up with the Tiangong-2 space lab to evaluate refueling in Earth orbit, the first docking taking place on April 27 and their second on June 15.

Credit: CMSA

Back in mid-June, the cargo spacecraft began independent operation, backing away from theTiangong-2 space lab. Ground controllers initiated a separation of Tianzhou-1 from the space lab. The cargo ship stopped at a distance of nearly 400 feet (120 meters) in front of the Tiangong-2.

Fast docking

The cargo spacecraft is to carry out a “fast docking” with Tiangong-2 and a third in-orbit refueling – an event reportedly to occur near the end of the supply ship’s six-month mission.

Tianzhou demonstrating the fast docking procedure with Tiangong 2 is a simulation to mimic future crew and cargo spacecraft dockings with the orbital space station in six hours after launch.

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

Prelude to space station

Following Russia and the United States, China is the third country to master refueling techniques in space, a capability the country needs for building and sustaining a permanent space station in the mid-2020s.

“As the International Space Station is set to retire in 2024, the Chinese space station will offer a promising alternative, and China will be the only country with a permanent space station,” explains an earlier report from CCTV.

Booster failure

Still somewhat hazy, however, is what impact the July 2 failure of the Long March-5 booster will have. The second flight of that powerful vehicle failed to deliver the Shijian-18 communications satellite into orbit.

The Long March-5 is a key element in China’s projected space station plans, as well as to carry out deep space exploration initiatives. For instance, that booster is slated to hurl moonward this coming November China’s robotic Chang’e-5 lunar return sample mission.


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