You can never have too many Star Wars references. On Thursday, China launched its second space lab into orbit. The Tiangong-2 replaces the Tiangong-1, which space officials lost contact with earlier this year. The first space lab’s demise will be fiery as it is expected to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere in 2017.
China’s space agency is using these two space labs as testing beds for an eventual space station in the early 2020s. Since the country isn’t part of the 15-nation partnership making up the International Space Station, they have to tackle these challenges by themselves.
Like Tiangong-1, Tiangong-2 will be used to develop the techniques and technologies that will ultimately lead to a full-on space station. Things like docking techniques and life-support are essential to the operation of any space station. Month-long stays by two-person crews will also conduct the usual experiments we see ISS crew do.
The nearly 10-ton spacecraft includes an instrument to study gamma ray bursts from deep space, spectrometers to study Earth, various medical research and a small “microsatellite” that will deploy right beside and take photographs of the space lab.
According to Chinese state media, Tiangong-2 will settle into an orbit of about 380 kilometers above the Earth for a string of initial tests. After that, the space lab will rise to an orbit of 393 kilometers where it will stay for the duration of its mission.
Two Chinese astronauts are scheduled to meet up with the Tiangong-2 next month. They’ll fly aboard the Shenzhou 11. It looks similar to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that ferries astronauts to the ISS, but the Shenzhou is larger.
In April 2017, China plans the launch the first cargo spacecraft (Tianzhou-1) to the space lab. It will dock with Tiangong-2, and two astronauts will offload fuel and supplies.
Did You Know: China’s space agency sent three astronauts to the Tiangong-1. They are opting to send just two astronauts for the Tiangong-2 to maximize the time spent aboard the space lab.
The experiments and techniques learned over the next few years will lay the groundwork for China’s much larger space station in the next decade. If everything goes smoothly over the next few years, China will launch the ‘Tiangong Space Station’ or Tiangong-3 in the early 2020s. It’ll be about the size of the Russian Space Station Mir, which operated in the 1980s and 1990s.
The modules making up the space station will be fully assembled on-sight, hundreds of kilometers above Earth.
But China’s space station is still several years away. The work done by the country’s space agency and astronauts over the next few years will be instrumental in any space station getting constructed.
You can watch the successful launch of Tiangong-2 below.