Saturday, October 6, 2018

China’s Tiangong-2 Space Laboratory to Be Deorbited After July 2019

A rendering of Tiangong-2 (left) docked with Shenzhou-11. Image Credit: CMS

Tiangong-2, China’s second space laboratory nears, the end of its operational life and is planned to be deorbited safely after July 2019, according to latest reports.

China held a media briefing on its space projects last week, during which an official from the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) updated Tiangong-2’s current status and revealed the potential date of its controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

According to Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of CMSEO, the date of re-entry was chosen on September 20. On that day, the management committee for Tiangong-2 decided that the space lab would finish its service in July, and then would be taken out of orbit under manual control.

Lin disclosed that Tiangong-2 currently operates in a near-circular orbit at an average altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers), adding that the temperature and pressure of the experimental cabin are nominal.

"All of Tiangong-2’s payload modules are functioning properly and in good condition,” he noted.

Chinese officials insists that the deorbiting of Tiangong-2 will be controlled and safe as the spacecraft has several safety control modes designed to ensure a flawless descent. The space lab is expected to burn up almost completely in the atmosphere, however some debris that may survive the re-entry and splash into the Pacific Ocean.

"Even if it drifted out of our detection zone, Tiangong-2 would enter a self-pilot mode that can guide it back into the zone, ensuring the platform’s safety,” said Zhu Zongpeng, chief engineer of Tiangong-2.

He added that Chinese scientists developed more than 300 fault countermeasures that should guarantee Tiangong-2’s safe re-entry.

Tiangong-2 is 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of 11 feet (3.35 meters). With a mass of 8.5 metric tons, it can accommodate two taikonauts for up to 30 days. The space laboratory is composed of two main compartments: the “experiment cabin” which, as the name suggests, allows for the conducting of 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 was launched into space on September 15, 2016. One month later, in October 2016, it was visited by two taikonauts that arrived onboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. The crew entered the laboratory to live there for 30 days and carry out experiments. On April 22, 2017, the Tianzhou-1 cargo ship docked with the laboratory for the first time, delivering fuel and supplies. The docking with Tianzhou-1 was repeated two times more – in June and September 2017.

China’s first space laboratory – Tiangong-1 – was launched on September 29, 2011 and fell to Earth on April 2, 2018. It burned up almost entirely on re-entry above the southern Pacific Ocean. Although Beijing insisted that it controls the descent of the module, Western observers assume that control over it was lost on March 16, 2016. The spacecraft most likely ceased functioning due to a dysfunctional battery charger.

In general, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 are seen by China as experimental modules to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. The laboratories helped paved the way for the country’s future space station, which Beijing plans to complete in 2022.

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