Wednesday, July 13, 2016

China’s Next Space Laboratory Tiangong 2 Arrives at the Launch Center for September Liftoff

Artist's rendering of the Tiangong 2 module. Credit: CMS

China has shipped its next space laboratory known as Tiangong 2 (meaning “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese) to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert, from where it will be blasted off to space in mid-September. The module was transported by rail form Beijing.

According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, Tiangong 2 departed from the Chinese capitol on Thurdsay, July 7, and arrived at Jiuquan two days later. The tests of the spacecraft and its assembly will begin at the center ahead of the scheduled launch.

Tiangong 2 is slated to be lifted off atop a Long March 2F launcher. However, the rocket has not yet arrived at the center, it will be delivered to Jiuquan next month. The Chinese authorities have not disclosed any other details regarding pre-launch timeline. Due to this, it is unknown whether initial tests and checkouts of the module have already started. Integration of the spacecraft with the booster is probably planned to take place during the last week before liftoff, while the rocket’s rollout will most likely be carried out two to three days ahead of the launch.

With a total mass of about 20 metric tons, the Tiangong 2 module is 47 feet (14.4 meters) long and 14 feet (4.2 meters) in diameter. It can accommodate two astronauts for up to 30 days. The laboratory is composed of two main compartments: the "experiment cabin" which allows to conduct experiments in space and also serves as the crew's quarters, and the "resource cabin" which houses the solar panels, engines and other equipment.

Tiangong 2 will be used to conduct various experiments in the field of aerospace medicine, space sciences, on-orbit maintenance and space station technologies. It is capable of receiving manned and cargo spacecraft, and will be also employed as a testing place for systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling in space.

China plans to dock Tiangong 2 with the manned Shenzhou 11 spacecraft in October this year. After docking, the crew will enter the module to live there and carry out experiments. In April 2017, the Tianzhou 1 cargo craft will dock with the laboratory, delivering fuel and supplies.

According to Chinese media, Tiangong 2 features major improvements when comparing it to its predecessor, including an improved propel sub-system. 

The first Tiangong module was launched into orbit in September 2011 and ended its operational life earlier this year. During its mission, it had docked to three Shenzhou spacecraft, was visited by astronauts and conducted a series of experiments.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office reported in March 2016, that Tiangong 1 started to descend gradually and in several months the module is expected to burn up in the atmosphere. As the control over the spacecraft was lost it will undergo an uncontrolled re-entry, thus the exact time and place of its fall to Earth is currently difficult to determine. Western experts said that Chinese space officials have struggled to returned the spacecraft to its operational life but they failed to assume control over it. Since the module’s decommissioning, the authorities have not provided any new information about the status of the laboratory.

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