China launches second space lab into orbit for future space station

16 Sep 2016

China is aiming to solidify itself as a space technology leader with the launch into orbit of its second space lab as part of the construction of a Chinese space station.

In the past few years, China has upped its space technology development game significantly, from construction of the world’s largest radio telescope to plans to send a probe to Mars in 2022.

But one of its biggest undertakings in recent years has been the planning and constructing of its very own space station, which will replace the ageing International Space Station (ISS) in the next decade.

In the latest stage of this process, China has launched its second space lab, Tiangong-2, into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi desert.

Weighing just under nine tonnes, and over 10m in length, the lab will be used to test the future space station’s vital equipment, including its life support, maintenance and re-fuelling systems.

Also on board are 14 scientific experiments, including a European Space Agency (ESA) device called POLAR, which measures protons generated during stellar explosions.

According to Nature, this new module will replace the older Tiangong-1 module, which is now out of China’s control. It is expected to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere sometime next year.

‘China is where things happen now’

Now that the space lab has entered Earth’s orbit, it will circle our planet without a crew for a number of months to test its systems. In November of this year, a crewed mission will be put in place.

As part of the mission, two taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) will board Tiangong-2, where they will stay for 30 days to further test the equipment on board, including a prototype robotic arm.

Another mission is then scheduled to resupply the lab in April 2017.

Speaking with Nature, POLAR’s project manager, Nicolas Produit, believes that China will define space exploration in the decades to come.

“In China, things go fast,” he said. “They have the money, they have the will. China is where things happen now.”

With NASA’s rules forbidding joint projects with China, the agency is now facing a future in which it has no crewed presence in space.

The expected handing over of the International Space Station (ISS) to private entities will take place towards the end of the 2020s.

Main image via testing/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic