Spaceflight Insider

China’s Tianzhou-1 docks with Tiangong-2 space station

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A rendering of Tianzhou-1, right, docked with Tiangong-2. Image Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

Just two days after launching from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island in China, the Tianzhou-1 cargo freighter docked with the country’s Tiangong-2 space station.

The automated connection took place at 12:16 a.m. EDT (04:16 GMT) April 22, 2017, some 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Earth. The 28,700-pound (13,000-kilogram) unpiloted cargo craft is 34.8 feet (10.6 meters) long and 11.2 feet (3.4 meters) wide. It has a payload capacity of about 14,330 pounds (6,500 kilograms), including 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms) of transferable propellant.

While this mission won’t see any pressurized cargo, such as crew supplies, transferred, as there is no crew aboard to do so, over the next few months, it will see multiple automated docking attempts and fuel transfers to prove the capability of the craft. Inside the vehicles pressurized compartment is a “test load” of various items, which simulates the weight needed to resupply a three-person crew for about a month in orbit.

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An inside view of Tianzhou-1 after docking with Tiangong-2. Photo Credit: CCTV

Tiangong-2 launched back in September 2016. A month later, the crewed Shenzhou-11 spacecraft launched with two taikonauts – Chinese astronauts – and docked with the station. Their mission lasted about a month before returning to Earth.

The one-room Tiangong-2 laboratory is of the same design as China’s first space station, Tiangong-1. Moreover, the Tianzhou cargo ship design is based on the Tiangong, albeit a bit heavier.

It is not expected Tiangong-2 will be occupied by people again. The next step for China’s human spaceflight program will be to launch the first module of the Tiangong-3 space station, the country’s first multi-module outpost.

The core module for Tiangong-3, Tianhe 1, is expected to launch atop a Long March 5 rocket sometime in 2018. That will be followed shortly after by China’s second automated cargo ship, Tianzhou-2.

Tianzhou-2 will be followed by the first taikonaut crew to visit the core module, aboard the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft.

Expected to be fully assembled by 2022, Tiangong-3 will have a total of three major modules and have a mass of around 60 metric tons.

Video courtesy of CCTV



Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

Does anyone know if the Chinese docking mechanism is compatible with the current US NASA Docking System (the NDS standard intended for crewed vehicles visiting ISS)? It looks pretty similar in the video, but of course the devil is in the details.

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