China's second prototype space station, Tiangong-2, successfully launched into orbit today. The launch comes five years after China sent up its first space lab, Tiangong-1, and serves as a reminder to the West that China's space-based capabilities are growing fast. A Long March 2F carrier rocket is ready to launch the Tiangong-2 space station into orbit from the Gobi Desert today. Image: VCG via Getty
At roughly 15m long and weighing eight tonnes, some may call Tiangong-2 a glorified cargo box, but it appears to be a bona fide station, capable of docking with other vehicles, and supporting a small human crew and scientific research experiments.
In fact, it has 14 experiments on board that tackle wide-ranging topics from quantum communications to cardiovascular health to botany, New Scientist reports. The station is also carrying a precise atomic clock that reportedly loses just a single second every 30 million years and could help make future mobile devices more accurate.
Tiangong-1 lost contact with the Earth early this year, and is expected to burn up in Earth's atmosphere in 2017. During its time in operation, China's first prototype station saw several short duration, three-person crew visits. Tiangong-2 is expected to follow in its predecessor's footsteps, serving as a testbed where Chinese astronauts can practice docking techniques and test technologies needed for long-term human habitation in space. A two-person crew is expected to head to the station next month.
By the early 2020s, China hopes to install a much larger station in orbit that will be more of a direct competitor with the International Space Station. How well NASA and the other space agencies who frequent the ISS are going to get along with their new neighbour remains to be seen, but China, like the US, has publicly advocated for the pacifistic use of space.
The Tiangong-2 launched aboard a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's Gobi desert at 10:04PM local time (12:04AM AEST) today. You can watch a recap of the launch right here: