China’s April 20 launch of the first in its new line of spacecraft marks the first step in its goal of constructing its own version of the International Space Station (ISS).
The 10.6-meter long cargo Tainzhou-1 cargo vehicle will spend the next two months conducting three separate docking attempts at the Tiangong-2, a small prototype space station already in orbit.
Each docking attempt will be done from a different direction in relation to the small space station. Following the dockings, Tainzhou-1 will detach from the station altogether and conduct its own science experiments.
When those are concluded, the spacecraft will be sent to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Tainzhou-1 is capable of carrying as much as six tons of supplies, approximately twice as much as the cargo vessels that resupply the ISS, such as Russia’s Soyuz, Japan’s HTV, and the US’s Dragon and Cygnus capsules.
Without being part of an international partnership, China will have to resupply its space station on its own.
Current plans aim at putting the first crew in orbit in 2022 and keeping the station continuously crewed for about 10 years.
Taking a page from the ISS and its predecessor, the Russian Mir, China envisions its space station as being constructed of various modules, including housing areas, science laboratories and places to store equipment. All the modules will be assembled in Earth orbit.
The space station is only one part of a much more ambitious Chinese space program that includes sending both robotic and crewed missions to the Moon.
Engineers are working on building a heavy-lift rocket, known as the Long March-9, that is similar to the Saturn V rockets used in the US’s Apollo program.
Expected to be operational in about 15 years, the Long March-9 will be capable of carrying 130 metric tons into orbit. China envisions it transporting taikonauts to the Moon by 2030.