Artist concept of the Tianzhou-1 cargo resupply spacecraft now in Earth orbit.
Credit: CMSA

China’s bid to establish a permanently crewed space station got a boost today by the launch of the country’s first cargo supply spacecraft – the Tianzhou-1.

The Tianzhou-1 cargo resupply spacecraft departed in the early evening hours of April 20 atop a Long March-7 Y2 booster from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in the southern island province of Hainan.

Space program officials in China declared mission success shortly after launch and the vehicle deployed its solar panels.

The commander of the launching site headquarters of the Tianzhou-1 mission, Zhang Xueyu, announced later that the launch of Tianzhou-1 succeeded as the carrier rocket had sent the vessel into its designated orbit.

“Let me declare now that the launch of Tianzhou-1 is a complete success,” Zhang said at the Wenchang Space Launch Center.

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

Vital element

Tianzhou-1 is a vital element in China’s space station to be pieced together in the 2020s. The supply ship is expected to linkup with the now orbiting, but currently unoccupied Tiangong-2 space lab. A major objective of the mission is to perform refueling tests of the space lab – a prelude to China maintaining a larger space complex in the near-future.

After entering orbit, according to CCTV-Plus interviews with Chinese space officials, Tianzhou-1 is slated to conduct a first docking with Tiangong-2 space lab in a few days. 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.

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.

Credit: CMSA

Extensive ground testing

According to Chinese space authorities, there have been more than 600 ground tests that demonstrated Tianzhou-1/Tiangong-2 docking hardware.

“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.

“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.

After its boost into Earth orbit, Tianzhou-1is now on track to dock with the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, or “Heavenly Palace 2”, where two astronauts spent a month last October in China’s longest ever piloted space trek – a Shenzhou-11 mission that totaled 33 days.

For CGTN video of the Tianzhou-1 liftoff, go to:

For a CCTV-Plus video of the liftoff, go to:

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