China advances space program with Tianzhou mission

Tianzhou-1 sucessfully docked with the Tiangong-2 space lab. Image courtesy of China Manned Space
Tianzhou-1 sucessfully docked with the Tiangong-2 space lab. Image courtesy of China Manned Space

China's first ever cargo spacecraft has docked with an in-orbit laboratory, as part of China's accelerating space program.

The cargo spacecraft, called Tianzhou-1 (meaning Heavenly Vessel), was launched atop a Long March 7 medium-lift rocket.

After a successful launch on April 20 from the Wenchang Launch Site, the Tianzhou craft reached Low Earth Orbit, where it began a series of autonomous maneuvers.

Eventually, two days later on April 22, the spacecraft lined up and successfully docked with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory.

Tiangong-2 is China’s second space lab and was visited by two Yuanhangyuan (Chinese astronauts) late last year, who spent 30 days carrying out an array of tests and experiments. The lab itself was launched in September 2016.

Beyond proving the viability of Tianzhou as a cargo spacecraft capable of carrying up to 14,000kg of payload, the spacecraft’s primary mission was to refuel Tiangong-2.

In the coming days, the spacecraft will transfer significant amounts of propellant to the Tiangong-2 lab, testing on-orbit refueling technologies.

Such a capability is seen as a key milestone for the country to be operating its own future space station on an expanded scale.

“This means a lot because this one of the most important for China establishing its own space station,” said Wang Jianshe, deputy director of the science and technology commission at the China Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology according to Spaceflight Now.

“Only by doing this can the long-term operation of a future space station be guaranteed.”

Space station ambitions

The success of the Tianzhou mission stands as evidence of China’s accelerating manned space program.

While it doesn’t intend to launch more Yuanhangyuan to Tiangong-2, China instead intends to build a much larger space station.

The core module of this station, called Tianhe, will be launched next year, and the entire station is expected to be completed in 2022, with a size approximately similar to Russia’s Mir.