On Thursday, a Chinese Long March 7 rocket successfully lifted off from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, carrying the Tainzhou-1 spacecraft. This large, 10.6-meter-long cargo vehicle is the first of a new line of spacecraft that China intends to use to eventually service a large space station akin to the International Space Station.
During the next two months, the spacecraft will make three docking attempts with the Tiangong-2 space station, a smaller prototype for a larger station China intends to build during the coming decade. After these three proof-of-concept dockings, which will occur from different directions, the Tianzhou-1 will separate from the station and perform several months of experiments before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Much like how the International Space Station has autonomous cargo vehicles to resupply the International Space Station—the Russian Soyuz, Japanese HTV, and American Dragon and Cygnus—China needs to develop its own resupply capability. The Tianzhou-1 is a large cargo vehicle capable of carrying up to six tons of supplies, about twice as much as most vehicles that supply the international station.
Following the design of the Russian Mir, and later the International Space Station, China intends to build a modular station of different laboratories, equipment, and housing units assembled in Earth orbit. China hopes to begin sending crews to the station in 2022 and permanently inhabit it for about a decade. As part of its increasingly ambitious space program, China also has plans to continue exploring the Moon with robotic spacecraft.
Finally, the country has begun developing a heavy lift rocket that should enable human landings by around 2030. The Long March-9, a super-heavy lift rocket in the class of the Apollo program’s Saturn V rocket, remains about 15 years from its debut and is projected to have a payload-to-LEO capacity of at least 130 metric tons and a payload-to-LTO capacity of at least 50 metric tons.
Listing image by Xinhua