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China launches Tianzhou 3 cargo ship to new space station

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 (3:10 a.m. EDT; 0710 GMT).

About 6.5 hours later, Tianzhou 3 autonomously docked with Tianhe ("Harmony of the Heavens"), the core module of China's new Tiangong space station, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

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.

Related: The latest news about China's space program

A Chinese Long March 7 rocket launches the Tianzhou 3 automated cargo ship to the country's Tiangong space station module Tianhe on Sept. 20, 2021 from the  Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  (Image credit: CASC)

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 was 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."

Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:10 p.m. EDT on Sept. 20 with news of Tianzhou 3's arrival at Tianhe.

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. 

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Mike Wall

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.