HELSINKI — China is set to launch the Tianzhou-2 space station cargo mission this week after rollout of a Long March 7 rocket at Wenchang spaceport.

Rollout took place late May 15 Eastern (May 16 local time) at the coastal Wenchang satellite launch center.  Final checks, rehearsals and pre-launch preparations will take place ahead of an instantaneous launch window expected around May 20 local time.

The roughly 13-metric-ton Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft will head to low Earth orbit to rendezvous and dock with China’s Tianhe space station core module. 

Tianzhou-2 will transfer propellant to Tianhe for maintaining its orbit and also deliver supplies to support crewed future missions. 

Three astronauts are set to launch for Tianhe on the three-month Shenzhou-12 mission in June. The mission will launch on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert.

Tianzhou-2 will carry 4.69 tons of cargo in a pressurized segment and 1.95 tons of propellant, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).

The 22.5-ton Tianhe space station core module launched late April 28 Eastern on a Long March 5B rocket and is now in a 360 by 385-kilometer orbit inclined by 41.5 degrees. The core stage of the Long March 5B made an uncontrolled reentry May 8 after intense media coverage.

The Tianzhou-2 spacecraft undergoing testing.
The Tianzhou-2 spacecraft undergoing testing. Credit: CAST

Tianzhou-2 is the second of 11 launches scheduled for 2021 and 2022 to construct China’s 66-ton, three-module orbital outpost. 

A Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou spacecraft will also be on standby at all times at Jiuquan to perform emergency rescue missions to the space station.

China launched Tianzhou-1 in 2017 to dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab. That mission tested and verified technologies for fuel transfer in microgravity, a necessary capability for maintaining the orbit of the Chinese space station.

The Long March 7 is one of a number of new-generation kerolox and hydrolox rockets developed by China over the past decade. These include the Long March 5, 6, 7 and 8 series of rockets. 

It is powered by 120-ton-thrust YF-100 and 18-ton-thrust YF-115 engines burning kerosene and LOX on the first, second and booster stages. The first stage will not reach orbital velocity and will fall within a predefined area in the ocean. 

China first conceived its plan to construct a space station in 1992. The country became the third to develop independent human spaceflight capabilities with the Shenzhou-5 mission in 2003.

A view inside the cargo section of the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft.
A view inside the cargo section of the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft. Credit: CCTV/framegrab

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for SpaceNews. Andrew has previously lived in China and reported from major space conferences there. Based in Helsinki, Finland, he has written for National Geographic, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Sky...