China successfully launched its second space station, Tiangong-2, into orbit on Thursday at 10:04 AM EDT, from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. It will soon be an orbiting home to two taikonauts (the Chinese term for astronauts).
The mission is regarded as a key stepping stone towards the nation's larger spaceflight ambitions, which include sending taikonauts to the Moon and eventually to Mars.
Measuring 10.4 meters (34 feet) in length and weighing 8.6 tonnes (18,500 pounds), the Tiangong-2 was ferried to an altitude of 380 kilometers atop China's powerful Long March-2F T2 rocket.
Launch of Tiangong-2. Video: CCTV News/YouTube
This second generation spacecraft, whose name translates to "Heavenly Palace" in Mandarin, will conduct some initial tests before boosting itself even higher to an altitude of 393 kilometers, roughly on par with the International Space Station (ISS).
If all goes according to plan, the tubular orbital laboratory will receive its first taikonauts in late October on a spacecraft called Shenzhou-11. Though the names of the two crew members have not been released, they are both men, and they are expected to spend 30 days aboard Tiangong-2, according to Xinhua News. If successful, it will be the longest manned Chinese space mission to date.
In terms of specs, the new station is almost identical to its precursor, Tiangong-1, which operated in space from September 2011 until March 2016, and is on track to deorbit and immolate in the atmosphere next year.
Tiangong-1 hosted two separate crews of taikonauts, the first in June 2012 and the second in June 2013, who staffed the station for roughly ten days each.
These initial crews consisted of three people each, but the Tiangong-2 crews will be cut down to two to accommodate longer mission durations.
Where the first module was geared more towards testing out maneuvers like docking and re-entry, the next crew will use its extended mission time to focus on scientific experiments in fields like space medicine, atomic timekeeping, and solar storm research.
"The number of experiments carried out by Tiangong-2 will be the highest of any manned space mission so far," Lyu Congmin, a solar energy expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua.
Taikonauts have a long way to go before they will match the crewed spaceflight achievements set by NASA astronauts or Roscosmos cosmonauts. Valeri Polyakov, who spent an astonishing 437 consecutive days on the Mir space station, still holds the record for the longest single spaceflight.
That said, the Chinese space program is gaining momentum. The Tiangong spacecraft series is planned to culminate with the construction of China's first continuously crewed space station, a goal set for the early 2020s.
Given that the fate of the ISS is unclear past 2024, it's possible China may be the only nation with a permanently staffed space station within a decade's time. Whether it will be accessible to astronauts from other countries is an open question at this point.
On one hand, China recently encouraged international participation in its space station plans. On the other, Chinese citizens are prohibited from visiting the ISS due to US opposition, citing national security concerns, so perhaps similar restrictions based on geopolitical tensions will be in play on the Tiangong station.
Building a sustainable orbital habitat is far from the only milestone China hopes to achieve in space. The nation has also has lunar sample return missions and Mars rovers in the works, and hopes to land taikonauts on the Moon in the 2030s, and on Mars in the 2050s.
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