China Launches Prep Lab|for New Space Station

     (CN) — China launched an advanced laboratory module into space Thursday to serve as a base for extended stays by two-person crews beginning in October, paving the way toward construction of the nation’s Mir-class space station beginning in the early 2020s.
     Chinese astronauts will spend up to 30 days at a time aboard the Tiangong-2 module to carry out various experiments such as testing enhanced life support systems, autonomous refueling and other key technologies before assembly of the space station begins in 2022.
     The 9.5-ton spacecraft includes a “cold” atomic clock, an instrument that will be used to study powerful gamma ray bursts in deep space, spectrometers to study Earth’s changing environment, medical research to learn more about the physiological effects of weightlessness, and materials for other experiments.
     “The launching of Tiangong-2 is a solid foundation for the building of China’s space station in the future and is highly significant,” Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s manned space program, told reporters Wednesday.
     The Long March 2F/T2 rocket carrying the lab module blasted off from the Jiquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s Gobi Desert at 10:04 a.m. EDT. The launch was broadcast live on Chinese television.
     The Tiangong-2 — “Heavenly Palace” — was released from the booster about 10 minutes after liftoff, slipping into an orbit with a low point of 124 miles and a high point of about 250 miles. After a few moments, its solar arrays deployed as planned.
     Tiangong-2 later will be positioned into a circular orbit at an altitude of 238 miles, about 15 miles below the International Space Station. It will be roughly 30 miles higher than China’s previous spacelab, Tiangong-1, which was launched in September 2011.
     The new spacelab “will be outfitted to host astronauts for up to 30 days whereas in the past it was short visits only,” Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College, told CBS News. “Life support systems were one of the areas that China really had no experience in whatsoever, so they’ve been taking it very slowly and cautiously.”
     The first two-person crew to live aboard the spacelab is expected to launch aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft in late October, China’s sixth piloted space mission since astronaut Yang Liwei was launched aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft in 2003.
     Tiangong-1 served as an initial space station prototype, giving the Chinese experience with autonomous dockings. It was visited by two crews, including China’s first two female astronauts.
     While it looks similar to the nation’s first spacelab, Tiangong-2 is a much more advanced spacecraft, with refueling systems, enhanced life support equipment and accommodations to support two astronauts for a month at a time.
     “The astronauts can now have a better dining and sleeping environment in the spacelab, and they have also physical exercises for experiments and recreation facilities, Wu Ping said in translated remarks. “These changes will make the 30-day life for the astronaut in space more comfortable, convenient and more colorful.”
     The Shenzhou spacecraft and the two Tiangong spacelab modules are major elements of China’s Project 921, which aims to perfect low-Earth-orbit space transportation, in-orbit maintenance, rendezvous and docking technology, as well as allowing the eventual construction of a large 65-ton multimodule space station.
     “The Europeans are already learning Chinese because in 2022 the Chinese space station will be the de facto international space station,” Johnson-Freese said. “I think the rest of the world is gearing up to work with China on their forthcoming space station, and the United States is adamant that we don’t work with authoritarian, communist countries.”
     She added, “Well, except we do,” referring to Russia’s role in the International Space Station program.

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