China’s ‘Heavenly Ship’ prepares for inaugural flight, paving way for larger orbital station.
China’s space program is about to reach a new milestone Thursday (April 20) as the country prepares to launch the Tianzhou-1 spacecraft. Tianzhou-1 is China’s first space station cargo freighter and will be used to resupply the upcoming Chinese Space Station. Weighing over 13 tons, the mission will also be the heaviest payload China has ever sent into orbit.
Set for a five-month mission, Tianzhou-1 will perform the country’s first orbital logistics mission with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory. The space station testbed last saw occupants in September 2016 with the Shenzhou-11 crew.
The spacecraft will conduct three autonomous rendezvous with Tiangong-2 as well as the demonstration of the necessary logistics required to maintain an orbital outpost such as propellant transfer, orbit raising, and an expedited rendezvous to and from Earth.
Tianzhou vessels will be able to carry up to 14,330 pounds (6,500 kilograms) of cargo into orbit; for comparison, Russian Progress vehicles that resupply the International Space Station can carry up to 5,180 pounds (2,350 kilograms) of cargo, though it is a smaller vessel.
Tianzhou-1 and Tiangong-2 are seen rendezvousing in orbit in this CNSA rendering. The two spacecraft share commonality in their design.
Tianzhou-1, which means ‘Heavenly Ship” in Chinese, largely resembles the Tiangong modules which served as space station technology demonstrators in 2011 and 2016. Both vehicles are identical in size, though the freighter has a shorter solar array wingspan. Future modules of the CSS will be significantly larger and of different designs.
The spacecraft will fly on the new Long March 7 rocket which made its inaugural - and so far only - flight in June of 2016. Long March 7, also known as CZ-7, will be the new workhorse in the Chinese space program as the country aims to retire the older Long March 2F in the next few years. All crewed and logistic flights to the CSS will use the CZ-7 while the station’s modules will be lofted by the larger Long March 5 which also made its inaugural flight in 2016.
Liftoff is scheduled for 7:41pm local time, or 7:41am EDT, on Thursday, April 20, from Launch Pad 201 at the new Wenchang spaceport on Hainan island in the South China Sea. As seen in the photos above, the rocket was rolled from the Vertical Assembly Building to LC-201 at the Wenchang Island spaceport on Monday, April 17.
Artist’s rendering of the Chinese Space Station which is scheduled to be fully assembled by the early 2020s.
Following the mission of Tianzhou-1, Chinese aerospace officials will be confident enough to begin final preparations for the modular Chinese Space Station, the second major phase of China’s aerospace program. The CSS will be a Mir-class station, smaller than the International Space Station but larger than an all-in-one outpost such as Skylab or the Tiangongs.
Two science modules will be attached to a central core module which will house crew accommodations, life support systems, and vehicle docking ports. Regular flights of Tianzhou freighters will bring experiments and supplies to maintain the outpost and its three-member crews, which will rotate in the Shenzhou spacecraft.
The core module is expected to arrive in orbit by late 2018 with the additional modules on orbit and fully assembled by early 2020. A Hubble-class telescope will also accompany the CSS in orbit though will not attach to the station. It will orbit near enough to the station to where crewmembers can easily make repairs to the telescope, unlike servicing missions to the Hubble which required a dedicated space shuttle mission independent of the ISS.