China has launched Tiangong 2, its second orbiting space lab—marking another stepping stone towards the country’s goal of building a space station by the early 2020s. The module, which launched aboard a Long March rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert at 22:04 local time on 15 September, will initially fly uncrewed in low-Earth orbit, but a planned second launch will carry two astronauts to it in November.
Tiangong 2 (meaning ‘heavenly palace’) carries a number of scientific experiments, including an astrophysics detector that is the first space-science experiment built jointly by China with European countries.
“By itself, Tiangong 2 is not a monumental achievement, but it is an important step in a larger effort to eventually build a Chinese space station in the early 2020s,” says Brian Weeden, a space-policy expert at the Secure World Foundation in Washington DC.
The 8-tonne module replaces the now-defunct Tiangong 1, a mission that’s a milestone in China’s manned space programme, including the country’s first in-orbit rendezvous with another spacecraft. Mission control lost contact with that station earlier this year, and its orbit is slowly decaying. An uncontrolled re-entry is expected in 2017.
In November, a Shenzhou spacecraft will carry two astronauts to Tiangong-2 for a 30-day stay. Then in April 2017, a cargo craft will dock to refuel and bring more supplies. The module also carries a robotic arm, a prototype for a similar tool that would fly on a space station.