What is the Tianzhou spacecraft used for?

The Tianzhou spacecraft series is part of China Manned Space Agency (CMSA)’s mission to complete China’s flagship space station Tiangong-3, or just Tiangong space station, and is the main automated cargo spacecraft that is used to refuel the main station, and provide for its and its crew’s needs.

Purpose and Mission of the Tianzhou spacecraft

Tianzhou, which means “Heavenly Ship” in Chinese, is China’s primary resupply ship for the Tiangong space station, which has been operational since 2021. Tianzhou is designed to be similar to China’s Tiangong Space Station Modules, which were launched in 2011 and 2016 as stepping stones to the bigger CSS and allowed for the demonstration of crucial technologies and operations. (More on the Tiangong space station here)

More about docking procedures for the Tiangong space station with the Tianzhou

China’s first autonomous docking, a demonstration of prolonged life support in orbit, cargo- and fuel logistics, and long-duration crewed flights in space were among the achievements. The Tianzhou spacecraft is designed to transport pressurized, semi-pressurized, and unpressurized cargo to the Chinese Space Station, allowing all sorts of payloads to be transported.

The space station also successfully repositioned the Tianzhou 2 cargo vessel using its robotic arm. The test met its purpose of confirming the repositioning technique and the devices built for arm-enabled operations, and also offered more expertise that will be employed in the following stages of Tiangong’s orbital construction. Although the high-tech robotic arm is now being used for assembly, several governments are concerned about its potential military implications in the future.

Various missions by the Tianzhou spacecrafts

  • The Tianzhou 1 launched in April 2017 to test docking with the Tiangong 2 short term test space station
  • The Tianzhou 2 – May 2021 – to the main Tiangong space station, first flight.
  • The Tianzhou 3 – September 2021 – to the main Tiangong space station, second flight.
  • The Tianzhou 4 – scheduled for March/April 2022 – to the main Tiangong space station, third flight.
  • The Tianzhou 5 – October 2022 – to the main Tiangong space station, fourth flight.

The latest flight of the Tianzhou spacecraft, Tianzhou 3

On top of the Long March-7 Y4, China successfully launched an unmanned cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-3 on September 20, 2021, to supply supplies for its under-construction space station Tiangong, which is expected to be finished following year. The Tianzhou-2 cargo vehicle detached from Tianhe’s rear docking port and docked with its front docking port on September 18, allowing the Tianzhou 3 to dock with Tianhe’s core module instead. The three astronauts who arrived at Tianhe on the Shenzhou spacecraft in October were given fuel and supplies by Tianzhou-3. Their six-month mission was the fifth in the series and the final one for the year 2021. (More on China’s manned missions and Shenzhou program here.)

The Tianzhou-3 mission was the fourth of 11 planned flights to construct China’s three-module space station. It followed the famous Shenzhou-12 mission, in which three astronauts spent a record 90 days in the China’s space station core module before safely returning to Earth. Onboard the Tianzhou-2, there were 6.8 tonnes of supplies, including 160 packages of commodities and two tonnes of propellants, and one of the most costly items onboard the Tianzhou-3 would be a 90-kilogram spacesuit particularly developed for spacewalk missions.

Conclusion – Tianzhou 4 and 5 to be launched in 2022

The year 2021 has been lucrative for China’s space station building. Two groups of Chinese astronauts entered the space station for a long-term stay after the Tianhe core module was launched into orbit.

After several crewed trips, the construction and in-orbit assembly of the Tiangong space station is expected to be completed in 2022. China will launch the Tianzhou-4 cargo spacecraft first, followed by the Shenzhou-14 crewed spaceship later in the year, with Tianzhou-4 delivering supplies to the Shenzhou-14 crew. Two lab modules, Wentian and Mengtian, will be sent into space in succession throughout their stay.

The Tianzhou-5 cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou-15 crewed spaceship will next be launched, kicking off the crew’s in-orbit rotation at the space station. The International Space Station will be decommissioned in 2024, according to NASA’s plans. As a result, China’s space station might become the sole one in use. China’s space station appears to be on track to become a world-wide scientific research platform for the benefit of humanity through cooperation. (More on China’s plans for the future here.)

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