If successful, Tianzhou-1 will be another major step towards China establishing a permanent human presence in space, with the CSS planned to be completed by 2022.
Above: Tianzhou-1 and Tiangong-2 components at the spacecraft AIT Centre in Tianjin (CASC).
Tianzhou-1 (天舟 or 'heavenly vessel') and its Long March 7carrier rocket recently passed key development and manufacturing reviews and will in February be shipped from Tianjin to the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island province of Hainan.
Rendezvous and docking with Tiangong-2 will occur 3-5 days after launch – much slower than the two days taken crewed Shenzhou spacecraft take to dock with space labs.
Li Jian of the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre explains that this approach requires less fuel, and thus more can be transferred to the target.
Above: The Long March 7 to launch Tianzhou-1 being prepared in Tianjin (CASC).
China is the third country to independently master rendezvous and docking, and the docking system for Tianzhou missions has been upgraded to facilitate the transfer of liquid propellant.
The Tianzhou-1 mission will also test a 6-hour fast rendezvous and docking procedure, according to Go-Taikonauts, an independent report on the Chinese space programme.
The various pressurised, semi-pressurised and unpressurised compartments of Tianzhou will allow food, supplies, space equipment and experiments to be delivered to the CSS, along with the propellant required to maintain its orbit.
The spacecraft can also be used to remove waste from the CSS, which will then burn up in the atmosphere along with the deorbited Tianzhou vessel.
Long march to the Chinese Space Station
The CSS will consist of three 20-tonne modules and be able to host up to six astronauts, with groups of three staying for around six months each.
China embarked on a programme to develop human spaceflight capabilities in 1992, with the ultimate goal of a modular space station.
The uncrewed test of the Shenzhou capsule and Long March 2F launcher in 1999, and Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national in space in 2003, and ten more astronauts have followed him, with each Shenzhou crewed mission building on the last.
Following missions achieved the first two-person flights, first spacewalk, first three-person flights and the first docking, with Shenzhou-9 and Tiangong-1 in 2012, which also included the first Chinese female astronaut, Liu Yang.
In October 2016 Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong doubled the national spaceflight record by spending over 30 days in space, mostly aboard Tiangong-2, the country’s second testbed for the CSS.
Last year also saw the debut of the next-generation Long March 7 and the massive Long March 5 rocket, the latter of which is required for lifting the large CSS modules into low Earth orbit.
Long March 5 will also launch China’s second major mission of 2017 in November, sending the 8.2 tonne Chang’e-5 probe to collect lunar regolith from the Moon and return the samples to China.
The Chinese Space Station will also be accompanied in orbit by a free-flying Hubble-class space telescope, which can dock with the CSS for repairs and maintenance.
The CSS will also be open to collaboration with other nations, especially developing countries, following an agreement with the United Nations.
Tianzhou-1 is also kitted out with a range of science experiments in addition to those already running on Tiangong-2.
These science payloads include a cell bioreactor to test the influence of microgravity on mammalian cells including the development of different embryonic stem cells, and a two-phase fluid instrument for spacecraft fluid management.
Another, an electrostatic levitation accelerometer, aims to study the unexplained vast difference in the strength of the weak force and gravity, and explore potential forces predicted by theories suggesting extra dimensions.
The mission is currently expected but not confirmed to launch around mid-April, with new details such as mission duration likely to be announced during China's annual parliamentary sessions in early March.
Here's a glimpse of China's new Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft
A state media video report offers rare footage of China's Tianzhou-1 cargo and resupply spacecraft, which will launch in April to test refuelling technology needed for the country's plan for a large space station.
The video shows what is China's first such spacecraft undergoing development and testing at the AIT facility in Tianjin, North China, as well as 3D renderings of Tianzhou-1 docking with the Tiangong-2 space lab.
The main objective of the Tianzhou-1 mission is to test and verify on-orbit transfer of liquid propellant in microgravity to Tiangong-2, which late last year hosted two astronauts for China’s longest human spaceflight mission so far.
The 13-tonne, 9m long and 3.35m diameter Tianzhou vessels will perform a similar role to Russia's expendable Progress cargo spacecraft, used to refuel and resupply the InternationalSpace Station.
Tianzhou-1 will be launched by a new Long March 7 rocket and dock soon after with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab 390 kilometres above the Earth.
Above: Tianzhou-1 undergoing testing at the AIT centre in Tianjin, North China.
Bai Mingsheng, chief designer of Tianzhou-1 at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), explains that the refuelling of Tiangong-2 with propellant will occur following two months of being docked in orbit.
Both Tianzhou-1 and its carrier rocket will soon be shipped from Tianjin to the southern island province of Hainan, which hosts the Wenchang Space Launch Centre.
Check out our Tianzhou-1 preview here for more details and background on the mission and China's space station.
Above: Tianzhou-1 undergoing testing at the AIT centre in Tianjin, North China.
Above: A rendering of Tianzhou-1 (left) and Tiangong-2 space lab preparing to dock in orbit.
BEIJING, China plans to launch its first cargo spacecraft via a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket in April, sources said Monday.
The Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft, which departed from north China's Tianjin on Feb. 5, arrived at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China's Hainan Province on Monday for assembly and testing, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).
Consisting of a cargo capsule and a propellent capsule, Tianzhou-1, the first cargo spacecraft independently developed by China, has a take-off weight of about 13 tonnes, up to six tonnes of which is payload. It can remain in space on its own for as long as three months.
It is capable of docking with the Tiangong-2 space lab and refueling it in addition to carrying out experiments and tests.
The Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket is scheduled to arrive at the launch center in March, the CMSA said.
The launch of Tianzhou-1 will be a crucial step for China in building a space station by 2020, as cargo spacecraft are required to ship necessities to astronauts aboard the station.
China's 1st cargo spacecraft to make three rendezvous with Tiangong-2
Tianzhou-1 will be sent into space from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China's Hainan Province aboard a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket, according to a spokesperson of China's manned space program.
It is scheduled to refuel Tiangong-2 three times and carry out experiments and tests.
During the journey, Tianzhou-1 will orbit on its own for about three months and together with Tiangong-2 for about two months after their rendezvous.
At the end of the mission, Tianzhou-1 will leave the orbit and fall back to earth while Tiangong-2 will remain in orbit and continue its experiments.
The Tianzhou-1 mission will complete the second phase of the country's manned space program.
It will be crucial for China in achieving the final step of establishing a space station around 2022.
Final preparation starts for China's first cargo spacecraft launch
Final preparation for the launch of China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 has begun as the team responsible for the power system arrived at the launch center in Wenchang, south China's Hainan province on Thursday.
The team will prepare the Long March-7 carrier rocket that will carry Tianzhou-1 into space.
According to Liu Zhirang, head of the Sixth Research Institute of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, the difficulty lies in refueling in space.
Tianzhou-1, to be launched in April, is expected to dock with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab three times before falling back to earth, while the latter will remain in orbit and continue its work.
The Tianzhou-1 mission will complete the second phase of China's manned space program and is a crucial step for China in establishing a space station around 2022.
Long March-7 Y2 ready for launch of China's first cargo spacecraft
WENCHANG, Hainan, A Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket arrived at a launch center in south China on Saturday in preparation for the launch of China's first cargo spacecraft next month.
After about a week of ocean and rail transport, the carrier rocket arrived at Wenchang, Hainan, where it will undergo assembly and testing prior to the April launch of China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1, said China's manned space engineering office.
Tianzhou-1 is expected to dock with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab three times and conduct propellent refueling in orbit as well as other space experiments before falling back to earth. Tiangong-2 will remain in orbit and continue its experiments.
The Long March-7 Y2 is a medium-sized rocket that can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low-Earth orbit. It is able to carry cargo spacecraft and man-made satellites. It made its maiden flight in June 2016.
The launch of Tianzhou-1 will complete the second phase of the country's manned space program, a crucial step for China in building a space station by 2020.
Tianzhou-1: Long March 7 rocket delivered to Wenchang
The Long March 7 Y2 rocket that will launch China's first cargo spacecraft next month has arrived at Wenchang on Hainan Island ahead of the crucial mission for the country's space station plans.
The second Long March 7 will launch Tianzhou-1 to low Earth orbit where it will dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab and test docking and liquid propellent transfer in microgravity.
The process is necessary for refuelling and supplying the future Chinese Space Station, the core module of which is expected to launch in 2018.
The two-stages, payload fairing and four strapon boosters of the Long March 7 carrier rocket were shipped from Tianjin in northern China where it was manufactured, with the journey taking one week.
Above: Long March 7 Y2 parts in Tianjin in early 2017 (CASC).
Following Thursday's docking at Qinglan port, the components will soon be transported by road to the launch complex around two hours away.
The Long March 7 will be vertically assembled and topped with the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft before being transferred to the Wenchang LC-2 launch pad for launch in mid-to-late April.
The rocket will stand at 53 metres tall, with a core stage diameter of 3.35m.
Above: Tianzhou-1 undergoing testing.
The medium-lift Long March 7 was transported by the Xu Yang 16 cargo ship, rather than the specially built Yuan Wang 21 which delivered the first Long March 7 rocket for launch last summer, as shown in the video below.
This may be due to the vessel being required, along with Yuan Wang 22, to transport China's second heavy-lift Long March 5rocket from Tianjin to Wenchang for a June mission to launch the Shijian-18 experimental satellite.
China's new launch capabilities
The Long March 5 and 7 are part of a next-generation family of launch vehicles which have more than doubled China's lift capabilities while using new, cleaner fuel and refined processes.
The Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre was constructed specifically for these new launch vehicles, and its relative proximity to the equator gives launches from the site an extra boost due the Earth's greater rotational speed compared with China's other centres.
In contrast to the vast majority of Chinese space launches, missions from Wenchang are open to and attract thousands of tourists who travel to see liftoff.
Above: Spectators watch the launch of Long March 5 from across the water at Wenchang, Hainan Island.
The next Long March 5 missions will see the launch of the experimental Shijian-18 satellite, utilising a new, large satellite bus, the Dong Fang Hong 5 (DFH-5) in June.
This will be followed by China's other standout mission for 2017 - the launch of the Chang'e-5 lunar sample return probe, which will attempt to collect regolith and soils from the Moon and deliver them to Earth.
Above: Scientists work on China's Chang'e-5 landing and ascent vehicles (Framegrab/CCTV).
Tianzhou-1: Long March 7 vertically assembled ahead of launch
The Long March 7 rocket to launch China's first orbital resupply and refuelling mission, Tianzhou-1, has successfully undergone vertical assembly and testing at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre.
The Long March 7 Y2 rocket will mark the new rocket series' second launch and was delivered to Wenchang on Hainan Island in March. Vertical assembly took place at the '502' Vertical Assembly Building.
The Long March 7 Y2 will deliver Tianzhou-1 to low Earth orbit, where it will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab at an altitude of 390 kilometres.
The main goal of the mission is testing the transfer of liquid propellant to Tiangong-2 in microgravity - a process crucial to China's plans for launching and maintaining its own space station, starting with the Tianhe core module in 2018.
Liftoff from Launch Pad 201 is expected in mid-to-late April, with current rumours and projections pointing to possible dates of April 20 or 23.
With a length of 10.6 metres, a maximum diameter of 3.35m and a mass of 13 tonnes, Tianzhou-1 will be China's largest spacecraft so far, with Shenzhou and Tiangong spacecraft weighing in at around 8 tonnes.
Above: A rendering of Tiangong-2 and Tianzhou-1 docked in orbit (CMSA).
According to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the Long March 7 Y2 has benefited from 70 technical improvements in areas including flight timing, structure, circuit reliability, ground equipment and optimisation of processes following the debut Long March 7 launch in June last year.
The carrier rocket, which has a liftoff mass of around 600 tonnes and height of 53m, has also been optimised to adapt to the technical requirements of Tianzhou-1.
Tianzhou vessels can send close to 6,500 kg of cargo into low Earth orbit, with Tianzhou-1 carrying around two tonnes of propellant.
Above: Long March 7 Y2 components in Tianjin in early 2017 (CASC).
Above: Tianzhou-1 undergoing testing.
China to launch first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1
Photo taken on April 17, 2017 shows the cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 being transferred with a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket from the testing center to the launch zone in Wenchang, south China's Hainan Province. China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 is to be launched into space between April 20 and 24, according to the office of China's manned space program. (Xinhua/Ju Zhenhua)
WENCHANG, Hainan, April 19 (Xinhua) -- China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 is scheduled for launch at 7:41 p.m. Thursday from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China's Hainan Province, the office of China's manned space program said Wednesday.
The cargo spacecraft will be carried into orbit by a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket, the office said.
Fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene, the medium-sized rocket is able to carry cargo spacecraft and satellites. It made its maiden flight June 2016.
Tianzhou-1 is the first cargo ship independently developed by China. It is expected to operate in orbit at 380 kilometers before docking with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab.
Measuring 10.6 meters in length and up to 3.35 meters in diameter, the tube-like Tianzhou-1 can carry over 6 tonnes of cargo.
The cargo spacecraft will also carry out experiments, including one on non-Newtonian gravitation, before falling back to earth.
The launch of Tianzhou-1 will is a crucial step for China plans for a space station by 2020.
Photo taken on April 17, 2017 shows part of the cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 with a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket in Wenchang, south China's Hainan Province. China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 is to be launched into space between April 20 and 24, according to the office of China's manned space program. (Xinhua/Ju Zhenhua)
China launches first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1
China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 blasts off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China's Hainan province, April 20, 2017. (Xinhua/Ju Zhenhua)
WENCHANG, Hainan, April 20 (Xinhua) -- China on Thursday launched its first cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, into space, a crucial step for the country in building a space station by approximately 2022.
Lifted by a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket, Tianzhou-1 roared into the air from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China's Hainan Province Thursday evening.
In space, the cargo ship will dock with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab, provide fuel and other supplies, and conduct space experiments before falling back to Earth.
China aims to build a permanent space station that is expected to orbit for at least 10 years, and the debut of the cargo ship is important as it acts as a courier to help maintain the space station.
Without a cargo transportation system, the station would run out of power and basic necessities, causing it to return to Earth before the designated time.
"The Tianzhou-1 mission includes the breakthrough of in-orbit refueling and other key technologies needed to build a space station, laying a foundation for future space station operations," said Bai Mingsheng, chief designer of the cargo ship.
The cargo ship is 10.6 meters long and has a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters. Its maximum takeoff weight is 13.5 tonnes, enabling it to carry over 6 tonnes of supplies.
Tianzhou-1 is larger and heavier than Tiangong-2, which is 10.4 meters in length and has a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, weighing 8.6 tonnes.
Bai said that supplies loaded on the cargo spacecraft are nearly as heavy as the ship's own weight, exceeding the loading capacity of Russian cargo ships in active service.
Tianzhou-1 will dock with Tiangong-2 three times, said Bai. After the first docking, aerospace engineers will test the controlling ability of the cargo spacecraft over the two spacecraft.
The second docking will be conducted from a different direction, which aims to test the ability of the cargo ship to dock with the space station from different directions.
In the last docking, Tianzhou-1 will use fast-docking technology. Previously, it took China about two days to dock, while fast docking will take about six hours, according to Bai.
Refueling is conducted during docking, a process that is much more complicated than refueling vehicles on land.
The refueling procedure will take 29 steps and last for several days each time.
China Exclusive: Scientists to test medicine for bone loss on Tianzhou-1
Scientists will test a medicine to treat bone loss during the maiden voyage of China's first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1. The medicine has been specially developed for astronauts, but they hope it will benefit ordinary people too.
The main mission of Tianzhou-1 launched on Thursday is to test propellant refueling technology, which is crucial for the construction and operation of China's planned space station. But each voyage is a precious opportunity to conduct space experiments.
Chinese scientists will use the micro-gravity environment to test the effect of 3-hydroxybutyric acid (3HB) in preventing osteoporosis, said research leader Chen Guoqiang ,who is also director of the Center for Synthetic and Systems Biology at Tsinghua University.
Normally, the solid structure of bone tissue is stimulated and maintained by gravity and physical exercise. But the micro-gravity environment in space eases the load on bones, causing rapid bone loss and osteoporosis, Chen said.
"One day of bone loss in space is equivalent to a year on earth," he said.
Research shows astronauts suffer average monthly bone loss of 0.5 percent to 2 percent in space, especially in weight-bearing bones such as the tibia, femur and vertebrae.
Back on earth, they can take double or triple the time of their flight period to recover. Sometimes bone loss is permanent.
Micro-gravity mainly inhibits the differentiation of osteoblasts (bone-forming cells), which is accompanied by the mass growth of osteoclasts (bone-resorbing cells), causing bone structure to change, said Chen.
Standard drug treatments for osteoporosis have a range of side effects, including tumors or cardiovascular diseases. The medicines are also relatively ineffective for treating osteoporosis caused by micro-gravity.
Chen said 3HB is one of the main components of ketone bodies, which occur naturally in mammals. It had been used to treat epilepsy for many years.
"We found that 3HB can promote bone formation," said Chen.
In an experiment simulating the micro-gravity environment, the effect was obvious.
Unlike the chemical synthetic 3HB for treating epilepsy, Chen's team use microbial fermentation to produce 3HB, which has entirely the same structure as the 3HB naturally existing in the human body. So it's safer than chemical synthetic drugs, Chen said.
Experiments simulating the micro-gravity environment have been conducted on the ground. Scientists hung up mice by their hind legs, and found that those given 3HB had normal bones, while those without suffered serious bone loss.
"We hope to test the effect of the medicine in a real space micro-gravity environment," Chen said.
Since Tianzhou-1 cannot carry animals, scientists will compare the osteoblast cell samples treated and not treated with 3HB. Microscope images of the samples will be transmitted to earth.
Although China has conducted many experiments on the Shenzhou series spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space labs, opportunities for space experiments are still rare.
"After more than a decade of research we have one chance to conduct an experiment in space. We cherish the chance. We hope Chinese scientists will have more opportunities to conduct experiments in China's space station in future," Chen said.
Scientists believe the science and technologies developed in space exploration can benefit ordinary people. For instance, modern baby diapers were originally developed for astronauts on extended space walks. And the intensive care unit (ICU) system was first developed to monitor astronauts preparing to go to the moon in the 1970s.
The medicine for treating bone loss could also be used by ordinary people.
Osteoporosis is the seventh most common disease in the world. Each year it causes 8.9 million cases of fractures worldwide.
China has 90 million osteoporosis sufferers. The morbidity of osteoporosis among Chinese over 60 years old is 56 percent, while the rate among postmenopausal women is between 60 percent and 70 percent.
With China's aging population, osteoporosis cases will continue to rise. Experts estimate the number of patients in China will reach 200 million in 2050, accounting for 13.2 percent of the total population.
"We hope to solve this global problem," Chen said.