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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: