A Chinese cargo spacecraft carrying equipment and supplies successfully docked with the central module of the country’s future space station, according to state media.
A Long March rocket from the 7 carrying the cargo ship Tianzhou-2 – loaded with essentials such as food, equipment and fuel – lifted off Saturday evening from the Wenchang launch site on the southern tropical island of Hainan, Xinhua News Agency reported on Sunday.
Docking with the space station’s Tianhe central module was completed at 5:01 a.m. Beijing time on Sunday, the agency said, citing the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA).
China will have to carry out a dozen missions in total to complete the assembly of the space station – named Tiangong, meaning “heavenly palace” – in orbit.
The station is expected to become fully operational in 2022. When completed, it is expected to remain in low earth orbit for up to 15 years.
With the possible withdrawal of the International Space Station after 2028, Tiangong could become the only human outpost in Earth orbit.
Now that the freighter has docked, China plans to begin preparations to send three astronauts to unpack the goods, which include meals such as grated pork in garlic sauce and kung pao chicken, the agency said. .
“We will transport the necessary support material, spare parts and equipment first, and then our crew,” CMSA director Hao Chun said as quoted by Xinhua.
Beijing has injected billions into its space program in an attempt to gain ground on Russia and the United States, with projects in Earth orbit and the landing of unmanned craft on the Moon and Mars.
But he was heavily reprimanded by the United States and many experts for a potentially dangerous violation of space etiquette for letting a large segment of rocket fall uncontrollably to Earth earlier this month after the launch of the core module of Tianhe.
Although the Chinese authorities have declared themselves open to foreign collaboration on their space station, the scope of this cooperation is not yet clear. But the European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China to train to work inside Tiangong when it’s ready.
Earlier this month, China landed its Zhurong rover on Mars, becoming the third country to successfully land a craft on the Red Planet. The rover has started roaming around to study Martian geology – it will spend around three months taking photos and collecting data in a vast northern lava plain.
The United States and Russia are the only other countries to have reached Mars, and only the former has operated a surface rover.
The launch of the Tianzhou-2 was supposed to take place just days after the rover landed on Mars, but was postponed for technical reasons.