Tianzhou-1 to dock with Tiangong II space lab and conduct in-orbit refuelling
China has launched its first domestically engineered cargo spacecraft, a crucial step in Beijing’s goal to launch and resupply a manned space station by 2022.
The mission of the Tianzhou-1, China’s biggest and heaviest spaceship to date, is to dock with the Tiangong II space lab, launched in September 2016, and conduct in-orbit refuelling — a big technical challenge.
Sustaining a manned space station would be the crowning achievement of China’s ambitious space programme, whose budget, though dwarfed by that of the US, is set to triple by 2026.
“The launch of Tianzhou-1 is very significant because once our country’s space station is constructed and launched, it cannot leave its orbit so it will be crucial to send propellant and supplies as well as take back any debris and outdated equipment, ” said Jiao Weixin, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Peking University.
China’s manned space station, if launched as planned in 2022, would become the only one in orbit when Nasa’s International Space Station is retired from service in 2028.
“After our space station is launched, then if the US or Russia needs to do space research, then we can say, ‘sorry, you will have to contact China and co-operate with us’ , ” said Prof Jiao.
The Soviet Union was the first to successfully pull off docking between unmanned ships in 1967. However, in-orbit refuelling is an engineering feat that has only been completed a handful of times. The Tianzhou-1 can carry nearly six tonnes of supplies including fuel, according to state media agency Xinhua.
China’s space programme has largely replicated the trajectory of those of the US and Russia. The three-part modular design of the Tiangong II space lab is based on Russia’s Mir space station, which was in orbit until 2001.
China plans to send a rover to Mars by 2020 and has set a 2036 deadline for putting a man on the moon .
The country’s rapid space technology build-up stoked envy among regional neighbours, notably India, whose national space programme has lagged behind that of its great Asian rival.
Beijing views the Chinese space programme as “an important part of the nation’s overall development strategy”, according to a government white paper detailing China’s five-year space plans. “It has opened up a path of self-reliance and independent innovation.”
Tianzhou-1, nicknamed “Tiangong’s express delivery little brother” by Chinese media, is almost 11 metres long, has a diameter of 3.35m and weighs 13 tonnes. It was launched by a Chinese Long March rocket from the newly built Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in the island province of Hainan.
When it has completed its mission, it will decouple from the Tiangong space station, descend from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.
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