China launches cargo craft carrying space station supplies
A 14-tonne Long March 7 rocket carrying the Tianzhou-2 -- loaded with essentials such as food, equipment and fuel -- blasted off from the Wenchang launch site on the tropical southern island of Hainan, the Xinhua news agency reported.
The space station -- named Tiangong, meaning "heavenly palace" -- will need around 10 missions in total to complete assembly in orbit.
It is expected to become fully operational in 2022. Once completed, it is expected to remain in low Earth orbit for up to 15 years.
With the possible retirement of the International Space Station after 2028, Tiangong could become the only human outpost in Earth's orbit.
"We will transport support materials, necessary spare parts and equipment first, and then our crew," Xinhua quoted CMSA director Hao Chun as saying.
Breach of space etiquette
Once the cargo craft docks with the space station, China will begin preparations to send three astronauts up to unpack the goods, which include meals such as shredded pork with garlic sauce and Kung Pao chicken, the agency said.
Beijing has pumped billions into its space programme in a bid to make up ground on pioneers Russia and the United States, with ambitious projects in Earth orbit and the landing of uncrewed craft on the Moon and Mars.
But it was heavily reprimanded by the United States and many experts for a potentially dangerous breach of space etiquette for letting a massive rocket segment free-fall to Earth earlier this month after launching the core module of its space station.
Although Chinese authorities have said they are open to foreign collaboration on their space station, the scope of that cooperation is as yet unclear.
The rover has begun roaming the Red Planet to study Martian geology -- it is to spend around three months taking photos and harvesting data from a vast northern lava plain.
The United States and Russia are the only other countries to have reached Mars, and only the former has operated a rover on the surface.
The launch of the Tianzhou-2 was to have taken place just days after the Mars rover landing, but was postponed for technical reasons.