China has postponed a supply mission to its new space station for unspecified technical reasons.
The Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft was to have been launched early on Thursday morning. China Manned Space announced the delay on its website but did not say when the rescheduled launch would occur.
Meanwhile, photos sent back from Mars by its newly-arrived rover earned plaudits from Nasa despite only sporadic contacts between the Chinese and American space programmes.
The delayed supply mission would be the first to the main Tianhe space station module that was launched on April 29. A total of 11 launches are planned by the end of next year to deliver the station’s other two modules, various components and supplies and a three-person crew.
The launch of Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, was considered a success although China was criticised for allowing the uncontrolled re-entry to Earth of part of the rocket that carried it into space. Usually, discarded rocket stages re-enter the atmosphere soon after lift-off, normally over water, and do not go into orbit.
Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson said at the time that China had failed to meet responsible standards regarding space debris.
China’s space programme has suffered relatively few setbacks since it first put an astronaut into orbit in 2003, although the space station launch was delayed by the failure of an earlier version of the massive Long March 5B rocket.
Earlier this month, China landed a probe, Tianwen-1, and its accompanying rover, Zhurong, on Mars and has begun sending back pictures from the surface of the red planet.
In a message posted to the Nasa website on Wednesday, Mr Nelson congratulated the China National Space Administration on receiving those first images.
Congratulations to CNSA on the first images from the Zhurong Mars rover!
As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the US and the world looks forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet. https://t.co/cz04yOTJShAdvertisement
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) May 19, 2021
Mr Nelson said: “As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the United States and the world look forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet. I look forward to future international discoveries, which will help inform and develop the capabilities needed to land human boots on Mars.”
The pictures were taken by Zhurong from the top of its landing platform. Since setting down on Saturday, the rover has been conducting diagnostic tests and will shortly descend its ramp to begin a search for signs of frozen water.
The United States is the only other country to have successfully landed and operated a spacecraft on Mars – nine times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976 and, most recently, with the Perseverance rover in February.
China also recently brought back lunar samples, the first by any country’s space programme since the 1970s, and also landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side.
China earlier launched two smaller experimental space stations. It has been excluded from the International Space Station largely at the insistence of the United States, which is wary of the secrecy surrounding the Chinese space programme and its close military links. Congressional approval is also required for any co-operation between Nasa and the CNSA.