China launches its 1st unmanned cargo spacecraft

Rollout of the Long March 7 Y2 rocket on April 17 ahead of launch of Tianzhou-1

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.

The Tianzhou-1 took off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in China's southern Hainan province, on track to dock with the orbiting space lab Tiangong-2.

Once the mission is completed, Tianzhou-1 will be de-orbited and burn up in the atmosphere, in the same way as Progress cargo spacecraft in order to dispose of waste, while Tiangong-2 will continue to orbit and carry out experiments.

"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 first Long March 7 was launched past year.

If the Tianzhou-1 mission is successful, China will become the third country besides Russian Federation and the United States to master the technique of refueling in space. This is a step toward China's goal of establishing a permanently manned space station by 2022. The Tiangong space stations are quite small - 8.6 metric tons (MT).

The ion thruster was indigenously developed by Chinese researchers, who spent about five years on it, Chinese daily Global Times reported.

After the rocket reached the launch pad, a complex positioned around 2,000 feet (600 feet) from the beach, work platforms rotated around the Long March 7 to give workers access to the vehicle for final checks.

The Tianzhou 1 was due to blast off at 7:41 p.m. (1141 GMT) Thursday atop a latest-generation Long March 7 rocket from China's newest spacecraft launch site.

Being a rendezvous mission, Tianzhou-1 has an instantaneous launch window. Crew and cargo ships could begin visiting the space complex soon after the launch of Tianhe 1, the central module, on a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang.

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