On September 15th, 2016 we learned about

China’s second Tiangong orbital station sent to space

Between the well-publicized endeavors of NASA, SpaceX and Blue Origin to explore outer space, you may have missed the launch of the world’s next space station. This morning, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) sent the second phase of their prototype space station into orbit, where it should be deployed for its first crew within a month. If all goes according to plan, this will be the beginning of larger ambitions for a second modular space station operating above the earth, although at this point crews will only be stopping in for a month at a time to conduct experiments.

Heavenly Palace, part two

The Tiangong-2, which translates to “Heavenly Palace 2,” is intended to operate both as a prototype and orbital science lab. In addition to testing out automated docking technologies, life-support, and other functions needed for further space exploration, today’s launch also carried a variety of scientific experiments. There’s a fair amount of variety in these projects, which cover everything from radiation, fluid physics, quantum communications to plant growth in microgravity. There is also a new atomic clock, said to be so accurate it will only lose one second every 30 million years, which should help with navigation technologies back on Earth, since they depend on calculating timing differences with satellites to calculate position.

The Tiangong-2 is around 47 feet long, weighing around eight-and-a-half tons. Compared to the fully assembled International Space Station (ISS), the Tiangong-2 is obviously a more limited vessel, and will only have life support for two astronauts for up to 30 days. As a follow-up to the Tiangong-1 protoype, this craft is not intended to compete with the ISS though. Instead, today’s launch’s main goal is to pave the way for further space stations, including China’s upcoming Tiangong-3, which is slated be home for three astronauts for up to 40 days. These efforts are building towards the long-term goal of building a base on the Moon, but in the shorter term may help keep humans in space beyond 2024, the last year with funded missions for the ISS.

Sharing the sky

At this point, future collaboration with the CNSA on Tiangong projects is a bit murky. Agreements have been signed with Russia and the European Space Agency, but the US Congress has expressly forbid NASA from doing working with China. These concerns are largely due to security and political concerns, rather than any opinion about the scientific validity of such exploration. A lack of transparency hasn’t helped relations, with people around the world left to speculate about everything from the Tiangong-1’s decaying orbit to worries over cyber warfare being conducted from satellites.

Source: China launches second trial space station, BBC News

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