China's space program just took one more leap onward, with the successful launch of the nation's second experimental space laboratory, called Tiangong-2. While Tiangong-2 is only a small prototype part, measuring about 10 meters in length and weighing only 8.6 tons, it has the capability of a working space station, although miniaturized, and will help China make a bigger, permanent station that is anticipated to be constructed around 2022.
Space expert Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation in Washington DC told Davide Castelvecchi at Nature, "By itself, Tiangong-2 is not a huge achievement, but it is a significant step in a larger struggle to finally build a Chinese space station in the early 2020s."
Tiangong-2 launched just after 10pm local time on Thursday at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in China's Gobi Desert, with the space laboratory hitching a trip on a Long March–2F T2 rocket. About 10 minutes after the launch, the module separated from the rocket after getting an orbit altitude. Once some early testing of the module's systems is done, the un-crewed tiny station will move itself to an altitude of about 393 km, about the equal height above Earth as the International Space Station (ISS), where it will be situated for the coming two years.
Then, in almost mid (late October), the module will get its first crew, with two Chinese astronauts onboard China's Shenzhou-11 spacecraft anticipated to dock with the station. The astronauts are believed to work in the lab's close rooms for 30 days, testing apparatus and running experiments, before coming back to Earth. For Tiangong-2's squad, one of the difficulties will be running in their research in such close rooms.
China's state-run media agency Xinhua reports, "Tiangong-2 is barely the size of a palace. But its name means wonderful palace in Chinese, and it represents the dream that the Chinese have a long imagined vision in the sky."
The researchers will perform experiments and studies in aerospace medicine, atmospheric monitoring, plant cultivation, space physics and solar storm research, among other things. The space laboratory is also armed with an atomic clock, planned to investigate variations in microgravity.
Scientist Lyu Congmin from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Xinhua, "The number of experiments performed by Tiangong-2 will be the maximum of any manned space mission so far."
The prototype laboratory follows on the footsteps and has functionality similar to its predecessor, Tiangong-1. The first module launched five years ago and was frequently used to fine-tune kinds of stuff like docking procedures and operational procedures, while Tiangong-2 has more of a firm research focus.
In April next year, China's first space freight ship, Tianzhou-1, will dock with Tiangong-2, and refill its fuel and other supply for expected future crew stays. After two years, it is estimated that the module will be de-activated, and brought to rest and relax somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
By that time passes, China will be building and installing a more aspiring follow-up to Tiangong-2. As soon as the Tiangong program is completed, a space station aimed to orbit Earth on a more long-lasting basis will be assembled, with an estimated 10-year mission time frame. While information on this station is thin on the ground, it is probably to consist of three parts, a core module, connected to two separate space laboratories, much like the Tiangong craft. It is expected to be capable of hosting astronauts on long-term stays more than a year or so.
Chinese space policy expert Dean Cheng from the US Heritage Foundation told Rebecca Boyle at New Scientist, "Tiangong-2 is a cue that China has a manned space program, including the capability to put its own astronauts into space, something the Americans can’t do."
That is because Russia currently transports US astronauts into space, though in the long-term, it is a job that private corporations like SpaceX and Boeing are competing for. But getting the arrangements and technology up to speed is not a simple job, as SpaceX's recent rocket explosion obviously proves. In the meantime, the inspiring independence of China's space program is something for the rest of the world to take note of, and in addition to advancing the nation's scientific goals; it might give China something different that the nation may need.
Weeden told Nature, "China wants to build and operate a space station for the same reasons the United States and the Soviet Union did in decades past. Prestige."