Tianzhou-4 cargo craft docks with Chinese space station

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HELSINKI — The Tianzhou-4 cargo spacecraft completed an automated docking in orbit with the Tianhe space station module late Monday following launch from Wenchang.

The Chinese cargo vessel completed docking with the aft port of the Tianhe module at 8:54 p.m. Eastern May 9, seven hours after launch on a Long March 7 rocket from the coastal Wenchang launch center in southern Hainan Province.

Launch took place earlier on Monday at 1:56 p.m. Eastern, marking the fifth flight of the Long March 7, designed specifically for space station cargo missions.

The 13,500-kilogram Tianzhou-4 spacecraft is the sixth of 11 missions for the construction of the T-shaped, three-module Chinese Space Station and delivers around 6.9 tons of supplies for  June’s Shenzhou-14 mission.

Shenzhou-14 will see three astronauts enter the Tianhe core module for the start of a six-month-long mission which will oversee the arrival of the second and third space station modules.

Wentian (“Quest for the Heavens”), featuring a new airlock for extravehicular activities, living quarters that will allow crew handovers, and a small robotic arm, is scheduled to launch on a Long March 5B in July.

Mengtian (“Dreaming of the Heavens”) will launch in October. After docking, the modules will be transpositioned to radial docking ports on a docking hub launched with Tianhe.

Tianzhou-4’s cargo mostly consists of supplies for the astronauts but also includes space station maintenance equipment, space science experiment apparatus, and a refrigerator for space science and medical experiments. It also includes a range of seeds to be exposed to radiation in low Earth orbit and later analyzed and used back on Earth.

The daily supplies now include more vegetables than the earlier Shenzhou-12 and 13 missions to Tianhe, following feedback from the astronauts. “So now, we have 32 types of vegetables aboard,” Wang Chunhui, manager of the test team affiliated to China Astronaut Research and Training Center’s Tianzhou-4 mission, told CCTV.

“The changes were made because the astronauts said when they were in orbit they hoped that there would be more vegetables. So this is an optimization we’ve made in terms of food supply,” Wang said.

The first space station cargo mission, Tianzhou-2, was deorbited March 31, having supplied the Shenzhou-12 mission and been used in transposition tests. Tianzhou-3 was subsequently undocked from Tianhe’s aft port and docked with the forward port to make way for the arrival of Tianzhou-4.

Next, Shenzhou-14 will launch on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert. The China Manned Space Agency has not revealed a precise time and date for the launch, but the mission is expected in early June.