By Ma Xiaowen
Science fiction is becoming a reality with China's first robotic cargo ship firmly anchored in space, paving the way for a manned space station around 2022.
Tianzhou-1, China's first cargo spacecraft as well as its largest and heaviest spacecraft, will stay in space for nearly two months after docking with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory on April 22.
When the manned space station is in place in the future, the cargo spaceship will serve the important function of supplying its residents with food, medicines, fuel and other necessities. Tianzhou-1 can carry up to 6.5 tons of supplies, according to China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).
Tianzhou-1 was lifted into space by a Long March 7 Y2 rocket from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province on April 20, two days ahead of China Space Day.
Tiangong-2 has been in space since mid-September 2016. From mid-October to November it played host to two Chinese astronauts. But now, it is unmanned.
According to CAST designers, Tianzhou-1 will undock and redock with the space lab, then undock again and start a three-month independent flight before a third docking. The reason for repeating the docking and undocking is that engineers want to test technology that enables spacecraft to dock with the space station from different directions.
Tianzhou-1 will supply fuel to Tiangong-2 during the second and third dockings. After the third docking, it will be directed by ground control to fall back to Earth, into the Pacific Ocean.
If the mission is successful, China will become the third nation to master the technology of in-orbit refueling, after Russia and the United States.
For the manned space station, construction will start around 2018. The manned space station will have two labs and will operate for at least 10 years.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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