Science

China launches Tianzhou 4 cargo spacecraft to new Tiangong space station

China has launched a new cargo mission to its space station module in preparation for the arrival of a new crew in June.

Today (May 9) at 13:56 ET (17:56 GMT; 1:56 local time May 10), the Long March-7 rocket carrying the Tianzhou-4 robotic spacecraft was launched from the Wenchang Cosmodrome in Hainan Province in the south of China.

The cargo ship is expected to dock with Tianhe (Harmony of Heaven), the core module of China’s new Tiangong space station, about 6.5 hours after launch.

Related: Latest news about China’s space program

The engines of the first stage of the Chinese Long March-7 rocket caught fire on May 9, 2022 during the launch of the Tianzhou-4 cargo ship to the Tianhe module of the Chinese space station.

The engines of the first stage of the Chinese Long March 7 rocket caught fire on May 9, 2022 (May 10 local time in China), marking the launch of the Tianzhou 4 cargo ship to the module of the Chinese space station Tianhe. (Image credit: CCTV+)

The 35-foot (10.6 meter) Tianzhou 4 cargo ship is carrying thousands of pounds of materials for the upcoming Shenzhou 14 manned mission, as well as fuel and science experiments.

Shenzhou 14, with three astronauts, is expected to head for the 54-foot (16.6 m) Tianhe in June by launching a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Space Center in the Gobi Desert. China usually does not disclose exact launch schedules before space flights.

Tianhe is the main module of the Chinese space station Tiangong (Heavenly Palace). Launched in April 2021, it was visited by the cargo ships Tianzhou-2 and Tianzhou-3, as well as the crews of Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13. The three Shenzhou 13 astronauts returned home in April after a record-breaking six-month stay in space.

Tianzhou-4 is the sixth of 11 missions planned to complete the Chinese space station. The station’s second and third modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, will be launched to join Tianhe later this year during the Shenzhou 14 mission to complete the three-module T-shaped orbital post.

This makes Shenzhou-14 one of the most important missions in China’s spaceflight history. The Shenzhou 14 crew will spend six months aboard the station and will take part in the first scheduled crew transfer to the Chinese space station later in the year.

The crews of Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 will be able to briefly stay together on board Tianhe thanks to the expected arrival of new modules. (The arrival of Shenzhou 15 will be preceded by the arrival of cargo ship Tianzhou 5.)

The Shenzhou 14 spacecraft and its rocket have been on standby since October last year in case of an emergency aboard the Tianhe during the recently completed Shenzhou 13 mission.

China also plans to launch a Hubble-class space telescope next year that can dock with an orbiting outpost for repairs and maintenance.

Tiangong was originally thought to be about 20% more massive than the International Space Station. However, China is considering big new plans for the space station, according to officials who spoke at a press conference after the Shenzhou-13 mission last month.

These include commercial cargo missions using China’s new private space sector, new modules, visits by foreign astronauts and even tourist flights before the end of the decade.

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