China launches its 1st unmanned cargo spacecraft

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The Tianzhou-1 and the carrier rocket Long March-7 were transferred from the testing center to the launch pad at the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan province yesterday.

The spacecraft, which can carry over six tonnes of cargo, is propelled by a Long March-7 Y2 carrier rocket.

Holy crap, that's pretty much exactly how things have turned out: Tianzhou-1 (the name means 'heavenly vessel, ' like the free water bottle you'll get when you enter the afterlife) is based directly on the original Tiangong-1 'space station, ' and it's now being used to resupply Tiangong-2. Tianzhou-1 is the first cargo ship independently developed by China, reports the People's Daily. When successful, such docking method can be applied to both manned spacecraft and cargo spaceship. China is intent on building infrastructure for a long term presence in space, rather than taking the Apollo approach of reaching the goal quickly, but then being politically stymied regarding "what next", Johnson-Freese says.

This mission will mostly focus on having Tianzhou-1 dock, transfer fuel, and undock from Tiangong-2, multiple times. Chinese officials have not said if or when launches of astronauts will shift to the more modern rockets.

Tianzhou-1 is larger and heavier than Tiangong-2, which is 10.4 meters long and has a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, weighing 8.6 tons.

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"The Tianzhou 1's carrying capability is designed according to the scale of the space station, aiming to achieve the highest carrying capacity, with the lowest structural weight", Bai said.

The science payloads include a cell bioreactor to test the influence of microgravity on mammalian cells including the development of different embryonic stem cells, and a two-phase fluid instrument for spacecraft fluid management.

In the final docking, Tianzhou-1 will use fast-docking technology. China's Xinhua news agency previously reported the Tianzhou 1 spacecraft will then fly on its own for around three months before re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

The cargo spacecraft will also carry out experiments, including one on non-Newtonian gravitation, before falling back to earth.