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China poised to launch Tianzhou 2 cargo ship to Tianhe space station module

Update for 1:35 p.m. EDT on May 19: The planned May 19 launch of the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft has been scrubbed, apparently for technical reasons. It's not clear at the moment when the next launch attempt will be.

China is gearing up to launch the first cargo mission to its new Tianhe space station module, setting the stage for the first crewed mission to the orbital lab later this year. 

A Long March 7 rocket rolled out to the launch pad on Sunday (May 16), carrying the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft. A translated statement from the country's China Manned Space Engineering Office said the launch was targeted for 1 a.m. Beijing Time on Thursday (May 20). That's about 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) on Wednesday, May 19.

The mission calls for the cargo vessel to dock with China's Tianhe space station core module to transfer propellant and supplies to support future human missions, including the three astronauts expected to launch on a three-month Shenzhou-12 mission in June, SpaceNews added.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

A Chinese Long March 7 rocket carrying the Tianzhou-2 cargo ship rolls out to a pad at the country's Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. (Image credit: CASC)

"The launch site facilities and equipment are in good condition, and various functional inspections and joint tests will be carried out before launch as planned," the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation said in a photo gallery and press release that machine-translated to English.

The pictures appeared to show dozens of unmasked workers gathering near the launch site, waving large red and blue flags. Mainland China reported just 25 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, the single highest daily number that state-controlled media disclosed in six weeks, according to Reuters. This weekend, the Associated Press also reported China has largely contained domestic transmission of the pandemic, whose first human case was reported in Hubei province in November 2019.

China faced international condemnation earlier this month after a larger Long March 5B core stage booster crashed back to Earth near the Arabian peninsula on May 8. The mission met its main goal of putting the Tianhe space station's first module into space, but the core stage's fall back to Earth was one of the largest uncontrolled ones of recent decades.

Just last year, a different Long March 5B core fell uncontrolled over the Atlantic Ocean near west Africa, with some pieces making it to the ground of the Ivory Coast. No injuries were reported.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.