China’s Tiangong-2 space laboratory to be deorbited after July 2019
Tiangong-2, China’s second space laboratory, is nearing the end of its operational life. Current plans have the station deorbit safely after July 2019.
China held a media briefing on its space projects last week, during which an official from the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) provided an update on Tiangong-2’s current status. His comments revealed the potential date of its controlled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
According to Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of CMSEO, the date of the planned 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 insist 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 may survive re-entry and splash down in 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.
Zongpeng added that Chinese scientists developed more than 300 fault countermeasures designed to guarantee Tiangong-2’s safe re-entry.
Tiangong-2 measures 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of about 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 Sept. 15, 2016. One month later, in October of 2016, it was visited by two taikonauts that arrived via the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. The crew entered the laboratory and lived there for 30 days. 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 Sept. 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 otherwise, Western observers assume that control over it was lost on March 16, 2016. The spacecraft most likely ceased operating due to a dysfunctional battery charger.
Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 are viewed by China as experimental modules meant to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. It is hoped that the laboratories on board these spacecraft will help pave the way for the country’s future space station, which Beijing plans to complete in 2022.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.