The Tianzhou-1 cargo ship successfully docked with the unoccupied Tiangong-2 space station on Saturday, Chinese media report.
Launched on Tuesday, the cargo vessel will dock twice more with the station to test different rendezvous and docking techniques. One will involve approaching Tiangong-2 from a different direction. Another will shrinking the docking time from two days to six hours.
Tianzhou-1 will later conduct China’s first refueling of a vehicle in orbit.
The success of the mission is a crucial step in China’s plan to launch a permanent space station. The core module is scheduled to launch next year, with additional modules to follow through the completion of construction in 2022.
China launched its Tianzhou-1 cargo ship aboard a Long March 7 booster on Thursday.
The supply ship is headed for an automated docking with the Tiangong-2 space station, which does not have a crew on board. Two Chinese astronauts occupied the station for 30 days last fall.
Tianzhou-1 will rendezvous and dock with the space station three times. The supply ship, which is larger than the space station, will also test out refueling procedures crucial for a permanent, multi-module space station China plans to begin launching in 2018.
It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.
A New Direction for NASA?
NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.
Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.
A white paper outlining China’s space policy for the next five years calls for a sample return mission to the moon, a landing on the far side of Earth’s closest neighbor, and the launch of an orbiter and lander to Mars by 2020.
China will also begin constructing a permanent space station and research and development work on a heavy-lift launcher, reusable boosters and satellite servicing systems.
The nation also wants to expand international cooperation in areas that include remote sensing, space applications, lunar and planetary exploration, and human spaceflight.
China will end a three-year hiatus in human spaceflight late this year with the launch of the two-person Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to the new Tiangong-2 space station, Chinese officials say. The crew will carry out a 30-day mission aboard the space station before returning to Earth.
Tiangong-2, which is set for launch sometime during the third quarter, is larger and more capable than the Tiangong-1 space station launched in 2011. The first station was visited by two three-person crews on missions lasting 12 and 15 days. The second crew landed in June 2013.
“We have specifically modified the interior of the new space lab to make it more livable for mid-term stays for our astronauts,” said Wang Zhongyang, a spokesman for the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).
“Unlike Tiangong-1, Tiangong-2 will be our first genuine space lab,” he added.
Tiangong-2 is similar in design and size to the Soviet Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 space stations flown in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The new Chinese station has docking ports at both ends to allow for resupply missions.
China plans to send up its new Tianzhou-1 supply ship during the first half of 2017 to verify propellant transfer and other key technologies. The cargo vehicle will be launched by the new medium-lift Long March-7 rocket, which is scheduled to make its inaugural flight later this year.
Chinese officials are not discussing follow-on missions to Tiangong-2. However, some reports say that a second human mission and an additional cargo ship would be launched to the space station in 2018.
Officials also announced plans to launch the core of the permanent Tianhe-1 space station around 2018. The permanent facility will have multiple docking ports to allow for the docking of additional modules. Assembly of the space station is expected to be completed around 2022.