April 21, 2017 3:40 am JST

China successfully launches cargo spacecraft

Refueling mission is another step toward permanent space presence

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer

The Tianzhou-1 blasted off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island province of Hainan. © Kyodo

BEIJING -- China succeeded in putting a cargo spacecraft into orbit Thursday night to carry fuel and material to its space laboratory.

The launch is another step for China toward its goal of establishing its own space station as it works to become the third major space power alongside the U.S. and Russia. Beijing also appears likely to apply advances in launch technology to national security.

The Tianzhou-1 blasted off from the Wenchang launch site in the southern island province of Hainan on China's latest carrier rocket, the Long March-7, according to Chinese state-run media. The spacecraft has a launch mass of approximately 13 tons, making it the heaviest cargo ever lifted into orbit by China. It is also said to have the largest supply capacity in the world among active space cargo ships

The Tianzhou-1 will dock with China's space laboratory, the Tiangong-2 launched last fall, to experiment with refueling. If the mission succeeds, China will become the third country after Russia and the U.S. to have the technology to refuel space stations, according to state-run media.

China plans to begin building an independent space station in 2020 and complete it in three to five years. When the International Space Station is shut down, possibly in 2024, China could have the world's only operational space station.

The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping aims for the nation to become a "great space power" on par with America and Russia by 2030. Xi may also intend to use achievements in space to enhance national prestige and amass even greater personal authority ahead of the Communist Party Congress in the fall, which is expected to bring a reshuffle at the top of the hierarchy.

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