China to launch first cargo spacecraft

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Preparations are underway for the launch of China's first unmanned cargo spacecraft on a mission to dock with the country's space station.

The spacecraft, mounted atop China's Long March 7 carrier rocket, lifted off at 7:40 a.m. EDT (11:40 GMT) April 20, 2017, from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center (WSLC) on Hainan Island.

It is expected to dock with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab and conduct in-orbit refuelling.

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Tianzhou-1 is the first cargo ship independently developed by China, reports the People's Daily. It was launched for the first time in June previous year from the Wenchang space center, marking a new stage in China's space exploration.

Tianzhou-1 will test the technology and prepare China for its future space station plans. If successful, it will be the largest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever launched, even larger and heavier than the 10.4-meter long and 8.6-ton Tiangong-2 space lab launched on 15 September 2016. The longest Chinese spaceflight to date was the Shenzhou 11 crew's visit to the Tiangong 2 space lab previous year, a mission that lasted approximately 32 days. It was the country's longest space mission.

Built between 2009 and 2014, the Wenchang launch center sits at 19 degrees north latitude, closer to the equator than any other Chinese rocket base, giving China better access to place satellites in geostationary orbit.

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Above: The Long March 7 (Y2) rocket components in Tianjin, North China (CASC).

Being a rendezvous mission, Tianzhou-1 has an instantaneous launch window. It will dock with the unoccupied module at least three times over three months.

The 53.1m high, 594-tonne Long March 7 took around 2.5 hours to make the 2.7-km trip from the vertical assembly building to launch pad, starting at 07:30 local time on April 17.

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