Tiangong 2 arrives at Chinese launch center for September liftoff
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 into space in mid-September. The module was transported by rail from Beijing.
According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, Tiangong 2 departed from the Chinese capital on Thursday, July 7, and arrived at Jiuquan two days later. Tests of the spacecraft and its assembly will begin at the center ahead of the scheduled launch.
Tiangong 2 is slated to be lofted 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 the 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, 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 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 it will be also employed as a test platform for systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling in space.
China plans to dock with Tiangong 2—the crewed Shenzhou 11 spacecraft—in October 2016. The arriving crew will enter the module to live there and carry out experiments. In April 2017, the new Tianzhou 1 cargo ship 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 and the addition of a second docking port.
The first Tiangong module was launched into orbit in September 2011 and ended its operational life earlier this year. During its mission, it had seen three Shenzhou spacecraft dock with it (one of which was uncrewed). It was visited by two sets of crews to conducted a series of experiments. Both missions—Shenzhou 9 in June 2012 and Shenzhou 10 in June 2013—lasted about two weeks.
The China Manned Space Engineering Office reported in March 2016 that Tiangong 1 started to descend gradually and, in several months’ time, the module is expected to burn up in the atmosphere. As control over the spacecraft was lost, it will undergo an uncontrolled re-entry; thus, the exact time and place of its fall to Earth are currently difficult to determine.
Western experts said that Chinese space officials have struggled but failed to re-establish 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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