China’s second prototype space station, Tiangong-2, is set to launch into orbit today, according to state media reports. 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.
At roughly 15 meters long and weighing eight tons, some may call Tiangong-2 a glorified cargo box, but it appears to be a bonafide station, capable of docking with other vehicles, and supporting a small human crew and scientific research experiments.
In fact, it’s got 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’ll 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 neighbor remains to be seen, but China, like the US, has publicly advocated for the pacifistic use of space.
The Tiangong-2 is set to launch aboard a Long March-2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s Gobi desert at 10:04 pm local time (10:04 am EST) today. You can watch a livestream of the launch right here:
[New Scientist, BBC, Xinhua]