Space lab is a precursor to a 20-ton space station
China is pressing ahead with ambitious space plans
China is set to launch a second space lab into orbit Thursday, a crucial step in Beijing’s ambition to have a permanent space presence.
A Long March 2F rocket is expected to blast off at 10.04 p.m. local time (10:04 a.m. ET) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert carrying the lab, known as Tiangong 2 or “Heavenly Palace,” state media reported.
A spacecraft will ferry a two-man crew to the lab in October – China’s first manned mission since 2013. The astronauts will remain in the lab for a month, where they will be carrying out experiments related to medicine, physics and biology. It’s China’s longest mission yet.
“Tiangong is a precursor testbed of capabilities, building toward the large space station has always been the culminating goal of the Shenzhou program,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College specializing in space programs and space security.
Shenzhou-10: China's longest crewed space mission
Rival to ISS
China’s space station is expected to be sent into orbit just as the US-led International Space Station goes out of service – making China potentially the only country with a permanent space presence.
European astronauts are said to already be learning Chinese in anticipation.
Since 2011, US Congress has barred NASA from contact with China’s space program because of national security fears.
China's space ambitions
China was late to the space race – it didn’t send its first satellite into space until 1970 – just after the US put the first man on the moon.
But over the last four decades, China has pumped enormous amounts of money and resources into research and training. Future plans include sending a robotic probe to Mars and a potential manned mission to the Moon.
“If the US does not change its policies very soon and begin to work with China in space, it will lose whatever leverage it might having in shaping Chinese space plans for the future, ” Johnson-Freese said.