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China launches Tianzhou 4 cargo craft to new Tiangong space station

China has launched a new cargo mission to its space station module in preparation for the arrival of a new crew in June.

A Long March 7 rocket carrying the robotic Tianzhou 4 spacecraft lifted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in southern China's Hainan Province today (May 9) at 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT; 1:56 a.m. local time on May 10).

The freighter is expected to dock with Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), the core module of China's new Tiangong space station, around 6.5 hours after launch.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

The first-stage engines of a Chinese Long March 7 rocket ignite on May 9, 2022, during the launch of the Tianzhou 4 cargo craft to China's Tianhe space station module.

The first-stage engines of a Chinese Long March 7 rocket ignite on May 9, 2022 (May 10 local time in China), kicking off the launch of the Tianzhou 4 cargo craft to China's Tianhe space station module. (Image credit: CCTV+)

The 35-foot-long (10.6 meters) Tianzhou 4 cargo craft is carrying thousands of pounds of supplies for the upcoming Shenzhou 14 crewed mission, along with propellant and science experiments.

The three-astronaut Shenzhou 14 is expected to head to the 54-foot-long (16.6 m) Tianhe in June, launching on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. China typically does not reveal precise launch schedules in advance of spaceflight missions.

Tianhe is the core module for China's Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") space station. Launched in April 2021, it has been visited by the Tianzhou 2 and Tianzhou 3 freighters and the Shenzhou 12 and Shenzhou 13 crews. The three Shenzhou 13 astronauts returned home in April after a national-record six months in space.

Tianzhou 4 is the sixth of 11 missions planned to complete the Chinese space station. The station's second and third modules, named Wentian and Mengtian, will launch to join Tianhe later in the year during the Shenzhou 14 mission to complete the T-shaped, three-module orbiting outpost.

This makes Shenzhou 14 one of the most crucial missions in Chinese spaceflight history. The Shenzhou 14 crew will spend six months aboard the station and will be involved in the Chinese space station's first planned crew handover late in the year.

The Shenzhou 14 and Shenzhou 15 crews will be able to stay aboard Tianhe together briefly, thanks to the expected arrival of the new modules. (Shenzhou 15's arrival will be preceded by that of the Tianzhou 5 cargo craft.)

The Shenzhou 14 spacecraft and its rocket had been on standby since October last year in case an emergency occurred aboard Tianhe during the recently completed Shenzhou 13 mission.

Next year, China also plans to launch a Hubble-class space telescope that will be able to dock with the orbital outpost for repairs and maintenance. 

Tiangong, as originally envisioned, would be about 20% as massive as the International Space Station. However, China is considering big new plans for the space station, according to officials speaking during a post-Shenzhou 13 mission press conference last month. 

These include commercial cargo missions drawing on China's new private space sector, new modules, visits by foreign astronauts and even tourist flights before the end of the decade.

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Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI.