China has launched its first space station mission of the year to resupply the orbital outpost.
A Long March 7 rocket topped with the robotic Tianzhou 7 cargo spacecraft lifted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island in the South China Sea on Wednesday (Jan. 17) at 9:27 a.m. EST (1427 GMT; 10:27 p.m. Beijing time).
Tianzhou 7 is planned to rendezvous and dock with China's three-module Tiangong space station around three hours after launch. The three crewmembers of the Shenzhou 17 mission onboard Tiangong will oversee the freighter's arrival and later begin sorting through its cargo.
China's Tianzhou spacecraft have recently been upgraded, allowing the 29,760-pound (13,500 kilograms) spacecraft to carry around 16,300 pounds (7,400 kg) of cargo to Tiangong. This improvement means China needs to launch a resupply mission once every eight months instead of once every six months.
Tianzhou spacecraft haul supplies, propellant, scientific experiments and equipment to Tiangong. On this mission, the cargo also includes surprises for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations, as well as some fresh fruit and vegetables.
"There will be a further increase in the quantity and weight of fresh fruits we are to deliver this time, which should continuously improve the quality of astronauts' life in orbit," Yang Sheng, development technician of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), told CCTV ahead of launch.
Tianzhou 7 carries supplies for both Shenzhou 17, which arrived at Tiangong in late October, and for the coming Shenzhou 18 mission. Chinese crewed missions to the space station typically last six months.
Tianzhou 6 is now in free flight mode and will be deorbited in a controlled manner in the near future. Having first delivered supplies to Tiangong, it is now being used to dispose of space station waste.
Tianzhou 8 will launch around August to resupply Tiangong once more. China will launch the Shenzhou 18 and 19 crewed missions in 2024, meaning it will send a total of four spacecraft to Tiangong this year.
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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.