China has launched a new cargo mission to its space station module in preparation for the arrival of a new crew in June.
AN Long March 7 Rocket carrying the Tianzhou 4 robotic spacecraft blasted off today (May 9) from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan province at 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT; 1:56 a.m. local time). local May 10).
The freighter is expected to dock at Tianhe (“Harmony of Heaven”), the core module of the new Tiangong space station, around 6.5 hours after launch.
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The 35-foot-long (10.6-meter) Tianzhou 4 cargo ship is carrying thousands of pounds of supplies for the upcoming Shenzhou 14 manned mission, along with propellants and science experiments.
The three-astronaut Shenzhou 14 is expected to head to the 54-foot-long (16.6m) Tianhe in June, launching on a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert. . China generally does not disclose precise launch schedules ahead of spaceflight missions.
Tianhe is the core module of the Chinese space station Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”). Launched in April 2021, it has been visited by the Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3 freighters and the Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou 13 crews. The three Shenzhou 13 astronauts I returned home in April after a national record six months 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 launch to join Tianhe later in the year during the Shenzhou 14 mission to complete the three-module T-shaped orbiting outpost.
This makes Shenzhou 14 one of the most crucial missions in Chinese spaceflight history. The Shenzhou 14 crew will spend six months aboard the station and will participate in the first planned crew handover of the Chinese space station later this year.
The Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 crews will be able to stay together aboard Tianhe briefly, thanks to the long-awaited arrival of the new modules. (Shenzhou 15’s arrival will be preceded by that of the Tianzhou 5 cargo ship.)
The Shenzhou 14 spacecraft and its rocket had been in standby mode since October last year in the event of an emergency occurring aboard Tianhe during the recently completed Shenzhou 13 mission.
Next year, China also plans to launch a Hubble-class space telescope that will be able to dock with the orbiting outpost for repairs and maintenance.
Tiangong, as originally imagined, would be about 20% as massive as the International Space Station. However, China is considering big new plans for the space station, according to officials speaking during a post-mission Shenzhou 13 news conference last month.
These include commercial cargo missions based on 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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