China has launched an unmanned cargo spacecraft to the new space station. “Tianzhou 5” (Heavenly Ship) took off from the Wenchang Spaceport on the southern Chinese island of Hainan on Saturday on a Long March 7-Y6 rocket. The flight prepares for a historic step in China’s space program: the first crew change in space.

Three more astronauts are expected to follow by the end of the month and live in the newly completed Tiangong (Heaven’s Palace) space station with their co-workers Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe. The current crew is then scheduled to return to Earth in December. The new crew, scheduled to launch Shenzhou 15 (Magic Ship), will remain in the space station for around six months.

Only 15 minutes after launch, Deng Hongqin, director of the space center, reported that “Tianzhou 5” reached its orbit as planned. All systems worked normally. The start was “a success”. The 13-ton cargo ship will carry six tons of materials and supplies to the space station.

China is catching up with the space travel nations USA and Russia

The flight comes twelve days after the launch of the last module, Mengtian (Heaven’s Dream), which was successfully attached to the now T-shaped space station. It is the twelfth mission to build and resupply the space station. China wants to operate the “Heaven Palace” for around ten years.

If the International Space Station ceases operations as planned in the next few years, China would be the only nation to operate a permanent outpost in space. With the “Heaven’s Palace”, China is catching up to the great spacefaring nations of the USA and Russia.

For its ambitious goals, the People’s Republic has invested billions in the space program, which is managed by the military. China is already successfully operating a rover on Mars. The country took rocks from the moon and was the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

Ambitious goals in space

In addition to the space station, China has other ambitious goals in space. According to experts, a reusable spaceship may be used by 2025. Rock samples from the polar regions of the moon are to be brought to earth over the next five years. Plans for a research station on the moon are also being worked out with Russia.

One of the plans is to land on a near-Earth asteroid. China also wants to bring samples from Mars to Earth, which could happen in 2028. A mission to explore Jupiter could follow in 2029. With “Beidou”, China has also set up its own navigation satellite system.

The plans for the space station also include a “Xuntian” space telescope, which is said to be similar to the US Hubble telescope. It is scheduled to dock periodically with the “Heaven Palace” for refueling and maintenance. It could be ready for launch in 2024.