China will send a cargo ship into the space in 2016 to dock with a future space module scheduled to be launched earlier the same year, a leading Chinese space scientist said Friday.
The Tianzhou-1, which literally means "heavenly vessel", will carry propellants, living necessities for astronauts, research facilities and repair equipment to China's second orbiting space lab Tiangong-2, said Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's manned space program.
Cargo transportation system is a key technology China must master and make breakthroughs to build its own space station, said Zhou who is also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body.
China's multi-billion-dollar space program, a source of surging national pride in the country, aims to put a permanent manned space station into service around 2022.
The country already launched its first space lab, Tiangong-1, in September 2011 and has conducted two dockings with the module in the following two years. In June 2013, three Chinese astronauts delivered a physics lesson onboard Tiangong-1.
According to Zhou, Tianzhou-1 will be blasted off on top of a next-generation Long March-7 rocket, possibly from a new launch site in the southern Hainan Province.
Research on the Long March-5 carrier rocket - to be used to lift the Tiangong-2 lab into space - Tiangong-2's payload, and selection of astronauts for the mission are currently "progressing in an orderly manner," Zhou said.
China has ability but no plan for manned lunar mission: expert
The world's third country to softland on the moon has the ability to achieve the manned lunar landing but it has no plan to do it, a leading Chinese space scientist said Friday.
"With China's current technologies of manned space flight and moon probe, we have the technology basis to realize the manned lunar mission," said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China's manned space program.
But the scientist said his nation has no plan to land its astronauts on the moon for the time being.
Zhou, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, the country's top political advisory body, also said that challenges and a lot of preparation precede the realization of the manned lunar mission.
For example, it requires the research and development of a bigger carrier rocket and the bigger and more sophisticated manned spacecraft, he added.
The Chang'e-3 lunar probe, composed of a lander and China's first moon rover, named "Yutu," soft-landed on the moon in 2013, making China the third country to carry out such a mission after the United States and the Soviet Union.
China's test spacecraft simulates orbital docking
China has run tests close to the moon simulating an unmanned docking procedure needed in the country's next lunar mission.
The service module of the unmanned lunar orbiter currently in space to trial such techniques entered a target lunar orbit after breaking maneuvers, and flew to a suitable position for orbital docking between Tuesday and Saturday, said the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) on Sunday.
Liu Jizhong, deputy chief commander of the SASTIND's lunar probe project, said that the service module has proven the reliability of key technology needed for the docking of two spacecraft in the Chang'e-5 mission.
The Chang'e-5 probe, expected to launch in 2017, will be tasked with landing on the moon, collecting samples and returning to Earth.
The current lunar orbiter was launched on Oct. 24, 2014. A capsule designed to separate and return to Earth did so as planned in November, while the service module continues its lunar flight to carry out preset scientific tasks.
The service module is operating smoothly and will carry out further tests on capturing lunar images, and may conduct tests assessing lunar gravity depending how the mission progresses.
Liu told Xinhua that the SASTIND expects to test launching Chang'e-5 with a Long March-5 carrier rocket in south China's Hainan Province this year.
"In the tests of the service module, we have simulated three key procedures needed for Chang'e-5: re-entry [to the moon's orbit] at high speed, adjustment of lunar orbit and docking in lunar orbit, laying a solid foundation for China's three-step lunar program -- orbiting, landing and returning," said Liu.