May 11th, 2023
China’s Tiangong space station received a fresh delivery of supplies with the launch and arrival of the Tianzhou 6 cargo spacecraft.
Liftoff occurred atop a Long March 7 rocket at 9:22 a.m. EDT (13:22 UTC) May 10, 2023, from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in China. The autonomous cargo spacecraft docked with the aft port of the Chinese outpost roughly eight hours later.
This was the fifth resupply spacecraft to dock to Tiangong since it was launched in 2021. According to Chinese state media, Tianzhou 6 was upgraded to increase its payload capacity by 20% to carry up to 16,300 pounds (7.4 metric tons) — the most for any currently active cargo vessel servicing space stations.
According to the China Academy of Space Technology, the increased capacity will allow for fewer Tianzhou cargo ships, each nearly the size of a school bus, to be launched. Instead of two per year, only three every two years will be needed to support the three-person Tiangong space station.
For Tianzhou 6 in particular, it has aboard 3,860 pounds (1,750 kilograms) of fuel, 1,540 pounds (700 kilograms) of which will be used to refuel the outpost itself.
The rest of its capacity contains pressurized cargo and science experiments for the Shenzhou 15 and 16 crew, the latter of which is expected to fly to the outpost later this month.
Currently aboard Tiangong are Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu. They launched to the outpost in the Shenzhou 15 in November 2022 and are expected to be replaced later this month by the Shenzhou 16 crew, which has yet to be publicly announced.
Each three person crew is scheduled for six-month rotations aboard the orbiting laboratory, similar to those living at the International Space Station.
Shenzhou 16 will dock with Tiangong’s Earth-facing port. After a brief handover period, the Shenzhou 15 trio will depart, leaving the forward port available for Tianzhou 5 cargo ship, which recently undocked from the aft port of the station to make way for the new cargo ship.
Tianzhou 5 had been at the outpost since mid-November 2022 and has been flying independently since May 5, 2023.
Once Tianzhou 5 redocks with Tiangong, it’ll remain for a currently undisclosed duration before leaving for a final time with trash and other unneeded equipment bound for a destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Video courtesy of CCTV
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.