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Chinese cargo spacecraft docks with its new space station module in orbit

The Tianhe core module of the Tiangong-3 space station was launched into orbit last month. The station is expected to be completed in 2022.

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Bengaluru: A Chinese cargo spacecraft, named Tianzhou-2, successfully docked with its space station Tiangong-3’s core module Sunday, according to state news broadcasters.

The cargo craft was carrying propellant, equipment, and food and supplies for a future crew.

The craft was launched on a Long March-7 Y3 rocket at 8:55pm Beijing time (1825 IST) Saturday. It performed autonomous manoeuvres to rendezvous and then docked with Tianhe core module at 5:01am Beijing time.

The supplies carried by the craft will be utilised by the first crew scheduled to fly to the station module next month. Three astronauts will travel in the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft.

Tianzhou is a series of cargo spacecraft developed by China to dock with space stations. Tianzhou-1 flew thrice in 2017 with fuel for the Tiangong-2 space station prototype.

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The space station

The Tiangong (meaning ‘Heaven’s Palace’) programme, which began in 1992, is China’s attempt to create a Soviet-style space station along the lines of Mir, a historic mission that stayed in space for 15 years. The space station will be assembled and operated entirely by one nation, unlike the International Space Station (ISS).

The current orbiting module is the core component of the Tiangong-3 space station, which is the final functional version of the station after two prototypes were tested in orbit in the past few years. It will weigh 66,000 kg and begin operations by 2022 at an orbit of about 350-450 km.

Its design contains multiple modules, including the Tianhe core module, with science labs. The dockable Shenzhou crew capsule or lifeboat and the Tianzhou robotic cargo ship will also be a part of the station on either ends of the core module.

The core module contains the main living area for the future crew of the space station, and has life support. It can support six astronauts, and will provide power and propulsion to the station.

On the arms of the T-shape of Tiangong-3 will sit the science labs, Wentian (“quest for the heavens”) and Mengtian (“dream of heavens”), on either side.

To finish assembling the station, China plans to perform nine more launches over this year and the next one. These will include two more module launches, four crewed missions, and three more cargo vessels.

In September, the Tianzhou-3 cargo craft will be launched, followed by Shenzhou-13 with three astronauts who will stay in the Tianhe module for six months. In 2022, there will be two more crewed spacecraft with three astronauts each, who will stay in the module for six months.

Designed to function for 10 years, the Tiangong-3 is expected to function for at least 15 with good maintenance.

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