China to launch first cargo spacecraft tomorrow

Aaron Brown
April 23, 2017

The Tianzhou-1 was transferred with a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket from the testing centre to the launch zone in Wenchang, Hainan province, the office of China's manned space programme said. China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported that the weather forecast for Thursday's launch attempt looks favorable, but storms may be a problem Friday.

In space, the cargo ship will dock with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space station, provide fuel and other supplies, and conduct space experiments before falling back to Earth.

China on Thursday launched its first unmanned cargo spacecraft on a mission to dock with the country's space station, marking further progress in the ambitious Chinese space program.

With the launch of the Tianzhou-1 automated cargo ship, China has taken a significant step in being able to support a long-term crewed presence in space.

So, in a nutshell, here's what the Chinese are doing: they've outfitted what will become a future cargo vessel with a life support system and supplies, allowing their Shenzou crew to practice orbital docking, some limited space station living, test life support and propulsion systems for both future space stations and on their future station-supporting cargo ship all in one efficient mission.

Above: Tianzhou-1, with the docking mechanism visible, left, undergoing work in North China (CMSA).

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Tianzhou-1 being processed for launch.

After this three month period, Tianzhou-1 and Tiangong-2 will dock a third and final time to test the automatic fast-docking technology, which means to finish the docking within six hours.

The Chinese space station will rely exclusively on the Tianzhou.

Currently, only USA and Russian Federation have the technology of liquid propellant transferring in orbit. When successful, such docking method can be applied to both manned spacecraft and cargo spaceship.

Tianzhou-1 is larger and heavier than Tiangong-2, which is 10.4 meters long and has a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, weighing 8.6 tons.

A close-up view of the payload fairing containing the spacecraft. It will dock with the unoccupied module at least three times over three months.

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