China science

Up, up and away for China’s space freighter

Launch of Tianzhou-1 mission gets the cargo delivery programme off the ground to help build and supply the country’s orbiting space station

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

China took a big step forward in its space programme on Thursday night when it launched its first cargo spacecraft.

The Tianzhou-1 space freighter blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on Hainan at 7.41pm mounted on a Long March 7 rocket.

Its lift-off comes nearly four decades after the former Soviet Union pioneered space supply ships with the launch of its Progress series, vehicles that are still in use by Russia.

The Tianzhou’s maximum payload is just over six tonnes, or a fifth of the capacity of the United States’ space shuttle.

But the Chinese vessel’s capacity is double that of the Progress spacecraft and the US has long since retired its shuttles.

The Tianzhou is expected to become one of the busiest delivery systems for manned flights in coming years, strengthening China’s hand in competition with other space powers.

According to mainland space authorities, Tianzhou flights will be more frequent than any other spacecraft built by the nation to meet the construction and long-term operational needs of China’s planned space station. Construction of the space station is due to start next year and take until about 2020, during which time the Tianzhou will be the main supplier of cargo and fuel.

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“All space stations depend on logistics. Without a cargo spacecraft, a station cannot operate for very long,” Australia-based space analyst Morris Jones said.

The Chinese space station will have room for up to six astronauts and be the biggest structure in space after the eventual retirement of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS requires about eight resupply missions each year and each of those flights is carried out by a multinational fleet of cargo spacecraft built and maintained by Russia, the United States, Japan and Europe.

The Chinese space station will rely exclusively on the Tianzhou.

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Bai Mingsheng, the Tian­zhou’s chief designer, said the first launch was mainly for test purposes, state-run China Central Television reported.

The cargo ship would dock in lower-Earth orbit with the ­Tiangong-2, a space laboratory launched last year, and pump fresh propellants into the lab’s fuel tanks. The docking would be performed several times from various positions to test and verify new technology, he said.

Deputy chief designer Zhang Qiang said a docking procedure usually took a couple of days, but on this mission – to dramatically cut the time from launch to docking – they would try a new approach called fast rendezvous, which had previously been used only by Russia.

“We will require [the procedure] to be done in six hours,” CCTV quoted him as saying.

Zhang Jian, a researcher with the manned space flight programme, told Xinhua the interior wall of the Tianzhou was packed almost entirely with cargo. Astronauts would be able to enter the ship through a narrow passage between the packages.

Guo Junhui, the mission’s chief mechanical engineer, said the cargo on the maiden flight comprised more than 100 parcels, including food for future astronauts and scientific instruments, Xinhua reported.

After the docking mission, the Tianzhou will disconnect from the Tiangong and operate as a satellite for three months with various research devices on board. When its fuel is depleted it will be diverted into the atmosphere and destroyed.