Science 3 min read

First Chinese Cargo Spacecraft set to Rival SpaceX, Boeing Contracts

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China’s focus on industry now includes the final frontier: space. After launching a space lab in orbit last September, the first Chinese cargo spacecraft automatically docked with it two days ago. This is a first for China, but it’s probably only the beginning.

Often overshadowed by the well-established American and Russian space tradition, China is asserting itself as a spacefaring power. From orbital projects to the Moon and deep space, China’s ambitious space program is materializing little by little.

Chinese Cargo Spacecraft Successfully Docks With lab

Beijing Aerospace Control Center reported on Saturday, April 22 that the first Chinese cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, managed to dock automatically with its orbiting space lab, Tiangong-2. Tianzhou-1 was launched two days earlier from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre in the province of Hainan aboard a Long March rocket. It made first contact with Tiangong-2 Saturday at 04:16 GMT and the docking was completed at 04:23 GMT.

The successful docking marks a major step in Beijing’s plan to send astronauts into space. Tianzhou-1 is more than 10 meters long and can carry up to six tons of goods and equipment, with two more planned dockings with the Tiangong-2, before it falls back to Earth.

Tiangong-2 (Celestial or Heavenly Palace) was launched in orbit last September to be the basis of the deployment of a permanently manned space station by 2022, when the ISS will have ceased operation.

China’s Space Program, Prestige or Long-Term Economic Value?

Officially, China’s space program as a whole is part of a general strategy to protect China’s interest and strengthen national security. In less than five years (from 2011 to 2016), the Long March carrier rocket series completed 86 launch missions, sending over 100 spacecraft into orbit with a reported success rate of over 97%.

The first Chinese cargo spacecraft automatically docked with a space lab 4/22.Click To Tweet

For the next five years, Beijing intends to expedite the development of its space program by implementing manned spaceflight, conducting lunar exploration mission and the deployment of a hi-res earth observation satellite system (Beidou), and the development of new-generation launch rockets among other projects.

Projects are underway to develop pollution-free medium-lift launch rockets. The emphasis is put on technologies for low-cost launch vehicles and reusable space transportation system for low-earth orbit.

Besides prestige, China aims to catch up with NASA and position itself in the market of commercial space flight. NASA’s deal with Boeing and SpaceX to allow their CST-100 and Dragon V2 rockets, respectively, to dock with the ISS begins this year.

With Chinese plans to send robotic landers, called taikonauts, to the Moon then March, and eventually astronauts, the country is eyeing the burgeoning industry of commercial space flight. The Chinese government is investing heavily in space technologies as well as supporting the emergence of a private space start-ups à la SpaceX and Blue Origin.

These huge advancements in a relatively short time are very impressive. Yet, with SpaceX successfully launching a reused rocket, it seems other countries and their private companies still have a lot of catching up to do.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

Comments (2)
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  1. Timothy Webb April 24 at 10:15 pm GMT

    With Trump looking to vastly accelerate the US Mars program most likely using Elon Musk and SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) within the next 8 years, China will need to innovate even faster.

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