Chinese space station project leaps forward as cargo ship docks with Tianhe module

China has pushed ahead with its international space station project after US congress stopped Nasa from co-operating with China's space agency in 2011

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 6, 2018 shows a partial model of Chinese space station on display at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, south China's Guangdong province. China has postponed the planned launch on May 20, 2021 of a rocket carrying supplies for its new space station due to technical reasons, state media said. / AFP / WANG ZHAO
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China's cargo spacecraft, carrying supplies, equipment and propellant, docked with the space station's key module Tianhe on Sunday, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

The Tianzhou-2, or "Heavenly Vessel", autonomously rendezvoused and docked with Tianhe at 5.01 am Beijing time, Xinhua said.

It blasted off via a Long March-7 Y3 rocket at 8.55pm Beijing time on Saturday from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said.

With a designed life of more than one year, Tianzhou-2 carried supplies for future astronauts, including food for Shenzhou-12 crew members who will spend three months on the station from June, as well as two tonnes of propellant.

It is the second of 11 missions needed to complete China's first self-developed space station by 2022 and follows the launch of Tianhe, the first module, in April.

The three-module space station will rival the International Space Station (ISS), which is backed by countries including the US, Russia and Japan.

China was barred from participating in the ISS by the US.

The rocket's launch was postponed this month due to technical reasons, state media said.

The first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 was sent to refuel a space lab – Tiangong-2 – three times in 2017, as a test of the technologies needed to support the construction of the space station.

Both Tiangong-2 and an earlier space lab Tiangong-1 have been deorbited in recent years.

Next year, China will launch the two other core modules – Wentian and Mengtian – using the Long March 5B, its biggest and most powerful space transport vehicle.

That rocket, capable of sending 25 tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit, was a source of worry in May as it re-entered the atmosphere after delivering Tianhe into orbit.

Media reports warned of an uncontrolled re-entry of the rocket's core stage, reviving memories of debris from the flight of the first Long March 5B in May 2020, which damaged buildings when it landed in the Ivory Coast.

Remnants from the rocket finally fell harmlessly in the Indian Ocean, but China drew criticism for not being transparent about the timing of the debris re-entry and predictions of its trajectory.

From June until 2022, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft will also be launched, by the smaller Long March-7 and 2F rockets, which have a maximum low Earth payload of 14 tonnes and 8.8 tonnes, respectively.

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