China launched the Tianzhou 4 cargo spacecraft early Tuesday morning in the latest stage of its space station program to transport fuel and supplies to its Tiangong space station.
The Tianzhou 4 cargo ship is hauling thousands of pounds of supplies for the upcoming Shenzhou 14 crewed mission, as well as propellant and science experiments.
The three-astronaut Shenzhou 14 is scheduled to launch in June on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert to the 54-foot-long (16.6-meter) Tianhe. China usually does not expose precise launch schedules for spaceflight missions in advance.
The agency said in a brief statement that a Long March 7 carrier rocket lifted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province at 01:56 a.m., launching the robotic spaceship into a 400-kilometer low-Earth orbit. At 08:54 a.m., it docked with Tiangong, who was also in that orbit.
Tiangong is currently made up of the Tianhe core module and the Tianzhou 3 craft. Its most recent occupants, three astronauts from the Shenzhou XIII mission, landed on Earth in mid-April after a six-month journey.
The Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") space station's core module is Tianhe. It has been visited by the Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3 freighters, as well as the Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou 13 crews, since its launch in April 2021. After a world-record six months in space, the three Shenzhou 13 astronauts returned home in April.
Tianzhou 4 is the sixth of 11 planned missions to complete China's space station. Wentian and Mengtian, the station's second and third modules, will launch later this year as part of the Shenzhou 14 mission to complete the T-shaped, three-module orbiting outpost.
As a result, Shenzhou 14 is one of the most important missions in Chinese spaceflight history. The Shenzhou 14 crew will stay aboard the station for six months and will participate in the Chinese space station's first scheduled crew handover later this year.
Because of the anticipated arrival of the new modules, the crews of Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 will be able to spend some time aboard Tianhe together. (The Tianzhou 5 cargo vessel will arrive before the Shenzhou 15.)
Tiangong, as initially intended, would be roughly 20% the size of the International Space Station. According to officials speaking at a press conference following the Shenzhou 13 mission last month, China is considering major new plans for the space station.
Commercial cargo missions using China's new private space sector, new modules, go to visit by foreign astronauts, and even tourist flights before the end of the decade are among them.