China science

China’s first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 docks as planned with orbiting space lab

Unmanned cargo spacecraft completes first stage of historic mission with successful satellite-guided coupling to orbiting laboratory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 11:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 11:59pm

China’s first cargo spacecraft docked successfully with the Tiangong-2 space lab on Saturday, the official Xinhua news agency reported, marking a major step towards Beijing’s goal of establishing a permanently manned space station by 2022.

President Xi Jinping has prioritised advancing China’s space programme to strengthen national security.

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The Tianzhou-1 cargo resupply spacecraft made the automated docking process with the orbiting space lab after it had taken off on Thursday evening from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in the southern island province of Hainan.

Professor He Qisong, a space security expert from Shanghai Normal University, said that successful docking is an important step in the future plan to send astronauts into space station by 2022.

“The Tianzhou-1 cargo resupply spacecraft is to deliver goods, but that is only the first step,” He said, “in the future we are going to send astronauts, and that is our final goal.”

Another breakthrough is the use of tracking and data relay satellite to track the movement of spacecraft, according to Zhu Ke, a deputy director from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation who is in charge of measurement, control and communication of Tianzhou-1 cargo resupply spacecraft, CCTV reported.

In the past such monitoring was carried out by controlling stations on the earth or monitoring ships on the ocean, which cost a lot of money and manpower to build and maintain monitor facilities, according to Xu Xiaoping, the deputy chief designer of the cargo spacecraft, CCTV said.

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He, of Shanghai Normal University, said that with the space-based monitoring and tracing system, China’s technology of Space Situational Awareness, an ability to view, understand and predict the physical location of natural and manmade objects in orbit with the objective of avoiding collisions, would see a great boost.

“In the future, with such technology, we can quickly detect any possible collisions from space debris and make a prompt response once we build up a space station,” He said.

The Tiangong-2 space laboratory, or “Heavenly Palace 2”, was home to two astronauts for a month last October in China’s longest ever manned space mission.

The cargo spacecraft mission provides an “important technological basis” to build a Chinese space station, state media have said. It can reportedly carry 6 tonnes of goods, 2 tonnes of fuel and can fly unmanned for three months.

According to the original plan, Tianzhou-1 would dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab for a total of three times during its five month space mission.

Although the unmanned craft’s main job is to deliver fuel and supplies to the Tiangong-2 space lab it will also play host to a number of ground-breaking scientific experiments, which will be conducted remotely by Earth-based scientists.

A team lead by Tsinghua University professor Kehkooi Kee will research how weak gravity affects the development of human embryonic stem cells in space, Xinhua reported.

In another stem cell experiment, scientists from the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences will study the effects of microgravity on how stem cells multiply and form into cells with different functions.

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The spacecraft is carrying embryonic stem cells and embryoid bodies of mice, which scientists plan to observe in space through telescope images, and compare the results with experiments conducted on the ground.

Despite the advances in China’s space programme for military, commercial and scientific purposes, China still lags behind the United States and Russia.

In late 2013, China’s Jade Rabbit rover landed on the Moon to great national fanfare, but ran into severe technical difficulties.