China launched a cargo mission to its new space station, just days after the outpost astronauts left orbit.
A Long March 7 rocket surmounted by robotics cargo ship Tianzhou 3 took off today from the Wenchang satellite launch center in Hainan province (southern China) (September 20). Take-off was at 3:10 p.m. local time (3:10 a.m. EDT; 7:10 a.m. GMT).
About 6.5 hours later, Tianzhou 3 independently docked at Tianhe (“Harmony of the Heavens”), the central module of the new Tiangong Space Station, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
Three astronauts recently left the 16.6-meter-long Tianhe after a three-month stay, landing safely in Inner Mongolia early Friday (September 17) for conclude their mission Shenzhou 12.
Related: The latest news from the Chinese space program
The 10.6m-long Tianzhou 3 is loaded with thousands of pounds of supplies, science equipment and thrusters that will help prepare Tianhe for its next crew of astronauts, which will arrive soon. The three astronauts Shenzhou Mission 13 should be launched to the base module in mid-October. (Firm target dates are hard to come by, as China tends not to announce many details of its spaceflight plans in advance.)
Tianhe is the heart of a three-unit space station called Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), which China aims to complete construction in 2022. It will take a total of 11 launches to fully assemble and equip Tiangong, which will amount to approximately 20% as massive as the International space station (ISS), Chinese space officials said. (China is not a partner of the ISS, which has continuously hosted rotating crews of astronauts since November 2000.)
Tianzhou 3 was the fourth of those 11 launches. Tianhe was the first, take off on April 28. Tianzhou 2 was launched in Tianhe a month later and remains committed to the core module. Shenzhou 12 took off on June 16.
In case you were wondering, the first Tianzhou vehicle launched to the Tiangong-2 space laboratory prototype in April 2017. The freighter carried out a series of refueling and rendezvous maneuvers before being desorbed in September of the same year. Tiangong-2 was directed to a fiery death over the Pacific Ocean in July 2019.
Tianzhou translates to “Celestial vessel”. Shenzhou continues the theme of cosmic naming, translating to “Divine Vessel”.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 1:10 p.m. EDT on September 20 with news of Tianzhou 3 arriving in Tianhe.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.