In a leap forward for China’s space aspirations, the Long March 7 carrier rocket has successfully delivered the Tianzhou 6 supply ship from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre at 14:22 GMT on Wednesday, May 10. The mission of the Tianzhou 6 was to restock China’s Tiangong space station with essential supplies, including food, drinking water, clothing, and research equipment for the station’s current occupants, the Shenzhou 15 mission, and the upcoming Shenzhou 16 crew.
Docking at the orbital outpost took place eight hours post-launch, with Tianzhou 6 replacing its predecessor, Tianzhou 5. The cargo supplies are reported to be sufficient for a 280-day span and include 714 kg of experimental apparatus for use in a wide range of scientific fields, including life sciences, biotechnology, physics, and microgravity fluid studies. The supply vessel also carried 1.7 tonnes of propellant, 700 kg of which is intended to sustain the station’s orbit.
The Tianzhou 6 manifests significant improvements over previous models, with an expanded volume from 18.1 to 22.5 cubic metres and increased payload capacity from 6.9 to 7.4 tonnes. With the launch weight also up by 500 kg, these enhancements will allow China to extend its resupply schedule for astronauts from every six months to approximately every eight months.
The Long March 7 rocket used in this mission is a formidable asset in China’s space programme, capable of lifting up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO) and 7 tonnes to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Standing 53.1 m high, this powerful launch vehicle, which operates exclusively from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre, features six YF-100 engines in its first stage and four YF-115 engines in its second stage.
The Tiangong station symbolises China’s ambitions for a permanent human presence in Earth orbit, following the nation’s exclusion from the International Space Station (ISS) due to concerns over the close connections between China’s space initiatives and its military, the People’s Liberation Army, controlled by the ruling Communist Party of China. The Chinese authorities have indicated that the Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, is expected to operate in low Earth orbit for at least another decade.