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China stakes its claim on high frontier with launch of space lab

China has moved a step forward in its ambitious pursuit of building a permanent space station, with the successful launch of its Tiangong 2 experimental space lab into orbit on Thursday night.

Carrying Tiangong 2, a Long March 2F rocket blasted off at 10.04pm from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre deep in the Gobi Desert in northwestern China, ahead of being sent into orbit roughly 10 minutes later, according to a live broadcast on China Central TV.

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With a length of 14 metres and a launch mass of 8,600kg, Tiangong 2 is China’s second space lab after Tiangong 1, sent into orbit in 2011.

Tiangong means “heavenly palace” in Putonghua.

An atomic clock regarded as the most accurate in the world and a microwave altimeter for ocean measurements were part of the payload on the lab.

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China has invited scientists from Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Pakistan and the European Space Agency to watch the launch in Inner Mongolia.

A Shenzhou 11 capsule, also propelled by a Long March 2F rocket and holding two astronauts, will be launched next month, the first manned space flight in three years.

The astronauts will spend 30 days in orbit on the lab, twice as long as the last crew on Tiangong 1, and conduct more than 40 studies, including the three winning space-science projects from a 2015 competition at Hong Kong secondary schools.

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The top project, from pupils at Shun Tak Fraternal Association Yung Yau College, will study porous membranes in zero gravity, according to the Productivity Council, which sponsored the contest.

An experiment designed at Christian and Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Secondary School will look at how silkworms transform in space, and a team at Po Leung Kuk Laws Foundation College designed a study on the oscillation of a double pendulum.

The Shenzhou 11 will dock with the space lab at an altitude of 393km, where Tiangong 2 will be orbiting.

Before next month’s docking, scientists on earth will test Tiangong 2’s energy and communication systems to prepare it for hosting astronauts.

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The lab will also carry out several space experiments without astronauts on board.

In addition to docking with the manned Shenzhou 11 spaceship, Tiangong 2 will also dock with a cargo ship, called Tianzhou, early next year, in an attempted refuelling in space before its two-year operational life comes to an end.

If everything goes as planned, China will have a long-term space station ready for operation no later than 2022, with its “core module” to be launched in 2018.