The Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft docked with the Tianhe module on May 29, at the heart of China's new space station. This first step will help finalize the assembly of the space station before Chinese astronauts are scheduled to arrive in their new home in around one month's time.
China's space program project is gaining momentum every day. Fifteen days after the Chinese rover Zhurong landed on Mars, the country has accomplished another important achievement. Its cargo spaceship, named Tianzhou 2, docked to the Tianhe module on May 29, allowing the space station to be resupplied. This process was carried out by an automatic control system, without the intervention of ground teams.
Cargo spacecraft play a vital role in long-duration space station expeditions by allowing the crew to periodically receive supplies, spare parts, and new equipment and/or scientific experiments. The cargo vessel is carrying 4,690 kilograms of supplies and other equipment destined for the station and its first crew. To that is added nearly two tons of fuel for future maneuvers planned for the station.
Initially set to take off May 16 from Wenchang in southern China, the CZ-7 rocket had to reschedule twice before it could finally blast off. A first launch was cancelled because of unfavorable weather conditions, then a second launch was hampered by a technical problem on one of the four boosters of the launcher. The flight lasted a little more than eight hours and was followed live by Chinese television broadcaster CCTV. Tianzhou is only designed for a one-way flight. It will then be de-orbited and will disintegrate when approaching the Earth's atmosphere.
Final operational phase in 2023
While China's latest space projects have proved successful in many ways, the country has drawn criticism this past month after the central segment of a rocket was left in orbit. This then made an uncontrolled re-entry, with authorities concerned that debris would fall to Earth's surface. In the end, the debris was lost in the Indian Ocean.
The success of Tianzhou 2 should give the Chinese space mission more clarity in its schedule as an essential step approaches: the astronaut crew's journey to the station. The Shenzhou 12 mission, carrying the crew, is currently planned for June 10 at the earliest. Shenzhou 13, a mission that will carry out another battery of tests, should start in October 2021. The space station should enter its true operational phase in 2023.