Blasting out of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Sept. 15 in China's Gansu Province, the country's second space station, Tiangong 2, was placed into a low-Earth orbit.
While this isn't an International Space Station related blog post, this moment is important in the overall history of space stations. When Shenzhou 11 – China's crewed spacecraft – launches sometime next month, it will dock to the new outpost making Tiangong 2 the 11th occupied orbital laboratory in history.
Tiangong 2 was constructed from the backup of Tiangong 1, which was launched nearly five years ago. Chinese engineers had considered redesigning the second space station to be a bit longer and include two docking ports – one on either end. However, it was decided to modify the backup instead.
Launching with Tiangong 2 was a small satellite called Banxing-2. It is a 40-kilogram satellite equipped with a 25-megapixel camera to take pictures of the station while in orbit.
The new station will allow for the testing of a Chinese space freighter based on the design of the station itself. The first spacecraft, Tianzhou 1, will launch sometime in early 2017 to demonstrate autonomous propellant transfer.
This is all part of the country's slow-and-steady plan of advancing their human space program. Tiangong 2 likely see a couple of Shenzhou and Tianzhou docking with it over its expected two year lifespan.
In 2018, the country plans to launch the core of their first multi-module space station – Tiangong 3. It will be built over four years and consist of three major modules. The core itself will sport five docking ports and a robotic arm.
Tiangong 1, while still in orbit, is slowly spiraling back toward Earth. Control of the spacecraft was lost in early March 2016. This means an un-controlled reentry will occur and an exact place or time of impact will not be known until the final orbits.
China's first space station saw one uncrewed and two crewed Shenzhou dock with it. A total of six Chinese astronauts – sometimes called taikonauts – lived in the station over two missions. It's total occupied time was just shy of 20 days.
Video courtesy of SciNews