China to test unmanned space freighter in April

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China has announced that the first test flight of its unmanned Tianzhou-1 cargo freighter will take place in April.

The spacecraft will rendezvous and dock with the their test space station module, Tiangong-2, where it will then test its ability to refuel the space station.


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  • Orion314

    As I recall , NASA was never able to pull off a successful fuel x-fer in micro gravity. Apparently , it is far more difficult to pump explosive fuel without gravity. As risk adverse as NASA has become since the shuttle tragedies, such a experiment probably had them lads dropping a brick in their pants. Hell, the one time they tried that tether experiment , it damned near destroyed the shuttle.

  • Orion314: Your memory is incorrect. NASA did tests with the shuttle and was successful with them. They have just never had the facilities in orbit that required this skill. The Russians have been doing it for decades, first on their Salyut stations, then on Mir, and now on ISS.

  • Michael

    I worked payload integration for the two TSS (tethered satellite) fights on the space shuttle. Granted we had problems enough on both flights, I did miss the part about damned near destroying the shuttle

  • David M. Cook

    Seems to me it would be much easier to transfer the fluids in a container, rather than trying to pump them. Exchanging filled tanks would remove many of the safety concerns as well.

  • Orion314

    Using containers seems a lot more practical , as to the refuel , I had thought the goal was to refuel a secondary stage (centaur?) with a payload to a Jupiter type any rate, check the the youtube footage of the shuttle /tether experiment , worth a look…

  • LocalFluff

    @David M. Cook When the engine fires, the fuel has to be pumped from the container to the engine anyway. What would simplify things would be to have a space tug with its own fuel AND engine dock with the target satellite and do the propulsive job. The otherwise unservicable James Webb Space Telescope is built with such a docking option to prolong its life or maybe even rescue it if it doesn’t reach the right orbit. A big bonus with a separate tug is that one wouldn’t need to care about matching with the fuel of the target satellite.

    It is commonly proposed, and I think recently even by a member of the NASA transition team, that fuel produced at the Lunar poles could be used to refuel satellites. But that fails because satellites almost only use hypergolic fuels while the fuel potentially available on the Moon is oxygen and hydrogen. But it could be used to refuel a shuttling space tug. Although xenon for Solar electric propulsion is a strong competitor for station keeping and there’s no xenon on the Moon. And I think that even a specially built space tug needs helium for tank pressurization, and there’s no helium on the Moon.

    Refueling in space has its niche in a future of very big space flight, the ISS being one specific mission big enough to motivate it, but it isn’t generally very helpful concept right now.

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