China has launched a cargo mission to its new space station, just days after astronauts departed the orbiting outpost.
A Long March 7 rocket topped with the robotic Tianzhou 3 freighter lifted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province today (Sept. 20). Liftoff occurred at 3:10 p.m. local time.
Tianzhou 3 is headed for Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), the core module of China’s new Tiangong space station. Three astronauts recently departed the 54-foot-long (16.6 meters) Tianhe after a three-month stay, landing safely in Inner Mongolia early Friday (Sept. 17) to wrap up their Shenzhou 12 mission.
The 35-foot-long (10.6 m) Tianzhou 3 is loaded with thousands of pounds of supplies, scientific equipment and propellant that will help get Tianhe ready for its next astronaut crew, which will arrive soon. The three-astronaut Shenzhou 13 mission is expected to launch toward the core module in mid-October. (Firm target dates are hard to come by, because China tends not to announce many details of its spaceflight plans in advance.)
Tianhe is the heart of a three-element space station called Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), which China aims to finish building in 2022. It will take a total of 11 launches to fully assemble and equip Tiangong, which will be about 20% as massive as the International Space Station (ISS), Chinese space officials have said. (China is not a partner on the ISS, which has been hosting rotating astronaut crews continuously since November 2000.)
Tianzhou 3 will be the fourth of those 11 launches. Tianhe was the first, lifting off on April 28. Tianzhou 2 launched to Tianhe a month later and remains attached to the core module. Shenzhou 12 took flight on June 16.
In case you were wondering, the first Tianzhou vehicle launched to the prototype Tiangong-2 space lab in April 2017. The cargo craft performed a series of refueling and rendezvous maneuvers before being deorbited in September of that year. Tiangong-2 was steered to a fiery death over the Pacific Ocean in July 2019.
Tianzhou translates as “Heavenly Vessel.” Shenzhou continues the cosmic naming theme, translating as “Divine Vessel.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.