While there has been little press coverage of China’s manned space program, since it is more than a year since the last Shenzhou mission, China is moving steadily ahead with the next phase: developing the infrastructure to learn to live and work in space.
It is reported in China Daily that an expert panel has approved the design, and given the go-ahead for development, of an unmanned cargo ship, called Tianzhou, which will service China’s future space station. The concept is similar to Russia’s Progress freighters: Tianzhou will deliver supplies to the station, then be filled with trash, and burn upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. In addition to supplies for the crew, the freighter will be able to refuel the station. The full-scale, multi-module Chinese space station is scheduled for full operation in 2020. But the new cargo ship will be launched in 2016, to service the second small module, Tiangong-2, which is scheduled for deployment in 2015. The first module, Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and visited by three teams of astronauts. It remains in orbit but was only designed to accomodate three Shenzhou crews. The single-module Tiangong labs are testing technologies on a small scale that will be needed for a full-time station. Xu Jing, editor of Space International magazine, explained that since the technologies for the new Tianzhou freighter have already been tested and used on previous Chinese spacecraft (Shenzhou, Tiangong) they will be very reliable.
At the same time, Australian space analyst Morris Jones reports that as details trickle out about the next, Chang’e-4 lunar launch, it now appears that the spacecraft will not simply fly around the Moon on a “free return” trajectory, but will fire its engines and go in to orbit, before returning to Earth. Jones reports that while the capsule China is sending to the Moon would not be large enough for a manned mission, it most likely will measure the effect of interplanetary radiation on hardware and some biological samples. China has said the launch would take place before the end of this year.