HELSINKI — The Tianzhou-7 cargo spacecraft docked at China’s Tiangong space station Wednesday to resupply the orbital outpost.

A Long March 7 rocket lifted off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan island at 9:27 a.m. Eastern (1427 UTC) Jan. 17. Tianzhou-7 separated from the launcher and entered its predetermined orbit 10 minutes later, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) announced.

Tianzhou-7 docked at Tiangong just over three hours later, at 12:46 (1746 UTC), according to CMSEO. The Shenzhou-17 crew aboard the space station will later enter the Tianzhou 7 cargo spacecraft and carry out cargo transfer and other related work. 

The launch was the first to Tiangong in 2024. China completed the space station in late 2022 and has been sending regular, three person crews to Tiangong for roughly six-month-long missions. Each mission includes a handover, during which time there are briefly six astronauts aboard.

China plans to launch three further missions to Tiangong in 2024. These will be the Shenzhou 18 and 19 crewed missions and the Tianzhou-8 mission. The latter will fly roughly eight months from now. 

Tianzhou-7 carries 260 items of cargo, with a total mass of around 5.6 tons. Of this around 2.4 tons are supplies for the astronauts, including fresh fruit and vegetable and gift packages related to the incoming Year of the Dragon.

60 science units include an experiment focused on human bone cells and another carrying anaerobic archaea which will look at viability and methane production of early terrestrial life in a simulated cosmic environment.

CMSEO plans to send a Tianzhou spacecraft to Tiangong once every eight months. This is up from the original plan of once every six months, thanks to improvements in the capacity of the Tianzhou spacecraft. 

The automated docking was not as fast as the two-hour launch-to-docking performed by Tianzhou-5 in 2022, but the three-hour Tianzhou-7 docking was fuel and technology intensive.

CMSEO is also fostering low-cost cargo alternatives to supply Tiangong. The agency issued a call for proposals in May 2023 and selected four proposals in September to advance to a detailed design study phase.

While all selected cargo spacecraft proposals came from state-owned entities, it is understood that commercial launch vehicles are involved in plans to launch these spacecraft, rather than relying solely on Long March rockets.

The Kinetica-2 launcher being developed by CAS Space is understood to be the launcher for a proposal from the Innovation Academy for Microsatellites (IAMCAS) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). CAS Space is a CAS spinoff. 

Additionally, the Gravity-1 solid rocket launched by Orienspace from the Yellow Sea last week included a self-developed low-cost cargo spacecraft, according to the company. This was partly as a mass simulator to verify the rocket’s performance.

China aims to operate Tiangong for at least a decade. A co-orbiting space telescope with a roughly two-meter-diameter aperture is set to launch in 2025. “Xuntian” will be able to dock with Tiangong for maintenance, repairs and possibly upgrades.

The country is also planning to expand Tiangong with a multipurpose module. This will allow further full-sized modules to dock with the orbital outpost. The lifespan could also be extended, keeping it in orbit long after the International Space Station is expected to be deorbited.

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...