China successfully launched its first cargo spacecraft on Thursday. Powered by a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket, Tianzhou-1 roared into the air from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in the southern Hainan Province. Hours later, officials declared the launch a success, as the spacecraft entered the designated orbit, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The tube-like craft measures 10.6 metres in length and can carry over six tonnes of cargo as well as satellites. In space, the cargo ship will dock with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space station, provide fuel and other supplies, and conduct space experiments before falling back to Earth.
China aims to build a permanent space station by 2022, 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 space centre on Tuesday had conducted the final rehearsal for the launch, which covered all systems involved in the launch, such as the rocket, spacecraft, launching site and testing, control and communication systems.
China's fast-expanding space programme targets a landing on the dark side of the moon by 2018. It aims to launch its first Mars probe around 2020, followed by a second mission that would include collection of surface samples from the red planet. If the Tianzhou-1 mission completes its objective, China will become the third country besides Russia and the United States to master the technique of refuelling in space.
"The Tianzhou-1 mission includes the breakthrough of in-orbit refuelling 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 cargoship which can carry over six tonnes of supplies.
Tianzhou-1 is larger and heavier than Tiangong-2, which is 10.4 metres in length and has a maximum diameter of 3.35 metres, 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, Baisaid.
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.
Refuelling is conducted during docking, a process that is much more complicated than refuelling vehicles on land. The refuelling procedure will take 29 steps and last for several days each time.