China’s Tiangong space station receives fresh supplies from new Tianzhou cargo spacecraft


The Tianzhou 4 freighter docked with the Tianhe core module about 6.5 hours after lifting off.

China’s Tianzhou 4 freighter has arrived at its orbital destination.

The robotic Tianzhou 4 docked with Tianhe, the core module of China’s under-construction Tiangong space station, on Monday evening (May 9), Chinese space officials said. The arrival occurred as planned, about 6.5 hours after the cargo spacecraft lifted off atop a Long March 7 rocket from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province.

The 35-foot-long (10.6 meters) Tianzhou 4 delivered thousands of pounds of supplies, propellant and science experiments to the currently unoccupied Tianhe to help prepare the module for the upcoming Shenzhou 14 crewed mission.

Shenzhou 14 will send three astronauts to the 54-foot-long (16.6 m) Tianhe for a roughly six-month stay. The mission is expected to lift off next month. (The exact date is unclear; for most missions, China doesn’t announce target launch dates, or many other details, until shortly before liftoff.)

Tianhe has been a popular destination since its launch in April 2021; the core module has already been visited by two crewed missions (Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou 13, which returned to Earth last month) and three cargo craft (Tianzhou 2, Tianzhou 3 and now Tianzhou 4).

The first Tianzhou cargo mission, in case you were wondering, launched to China’s Tiangong 2 prototype space laboratory in 2017. Tiangong 2 was intentionally deorbited to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in July 2019.

And things will get busier still aboard Tianhe in the coming months. China plans to finish building the Tiangong space station by the end of this year, an effort that will require five more launches.

Two of those five launches will loft the orbiting lab’s other two modules, named Wentian and Mengtian. These modules will attach on either side of Tianhe, forming a T-shaped outpost about 20% as massive as the International Space Station, Chinese space officials have said.

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