China launches the Tianzhou 4 cargo spacecraft

China's space program takes next step to the heavens

In the latest stage in its space station program, China launched the Tianzhou 4 cargo spacecraft early on Tuesday morning, to transport fuel and supplies to its Tiangong space station, according to the China Manned Space Agency, or CMSA.

In a brief statement, the agency said that a Long March 7 carrier rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province at 01:56 am, sending the robotic spaceship to a low-Earth orbit of around 400 kilometers. It docked with Tiangong travelling in that same orbit at 08:54 am.

Carrying nearly 6 metric tons of propellants and materials, including more than 200 packages, the Tianzhou 4 is tasked with supporting the upcoming Shenzhou XIV mission, during which a three-member crew is expected to stay six months inside the Tiangong station.

Currently, Tiangong consists of the Tianhe core module and the Tianzhou 3 craft. Its most recent occupants – three astronauts of the Shenzhou XIII mission – completed a six-month journey and returned to Earth in mid-April.

The Shenzhou XIV spacecraft will be launched next month from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China, Hao Chun, CMSA chief, said last month.

In July, the Tiangong station's first lab component -- Wentian, or Quest for the Heavens – will be launched, while the second lab named Mengtian, or Dreaming of the Heavens, will be sent to dock with the station in October, Hao said, adding that after they are connected with the Tiangong, the station will form a T-shaped structure.

After the space labs, the Tianzhou 5 cargo craft and the Shenzhou XV crew are scheduled to arrive at the massive orbiting outpost around the end of the year.

In the longer term, the station will be regularly connected with a Shenzhou spacecraft and two Tianzhou cargo ships, according to the official.

Tianzhou 1, China's first cargo spacecraft, was launched from the Wenchang Center in April 2017. It carried out several docking and in-orbit refuelling maneuvers with a Chinese space laboratory in a low-Earth orbit between April and September that year, enabling China to become the third nation capable of in-orbit refueling, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

With a designed life of more than a year, each Taizhou cargo spaceship has two parts, a cargo cabin and a propulsion section. Such vehicles are 10.6 meters long and 3.35 meters wide.

The cargo vehicle has a lift-off weight of 13.5 tons, and can transport up to 6.9 tons of supplies to the space station.

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