China will take its next step toward a major space station on Thursday, when it plans to launch the Tiangong-2 lab into orbit. The 8.5-ton, 10.4-meter long facility will launch from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi Desert aboard a Long March 2-F rocket. The launch is scheduled for Thursday at 10:04am ET (3:04pm BST) and live video is available.
This space station, “Heavenly Palace 2”, will be China’s second space station after it launched the similar-sized Tiangong-1 laboratory in 2011. After this week’s launch, China plans to send two taikonauts to Tiangong-2 aboard a Shenzhou-11 spacecraft within four to six weeks. They will live there for about a month, testing the lab’s life support systems and conducting scientific research. According to China’s official news service, Xinhua, those experiments will cover fields of medicine, physics and biology, as well as quantum key transmission, atomic clock in space and solar storm research.
As part of its robust space plan, China plans to scale up to a full-fledged space station in the next decade. To help lay the groundwork for that station, Chinese space officials have said they will launch the country’s first robotic resupply mission, Tianzhou-1 (“Celestial Ship”), to the Tiangong-2 lab in 2017. The larger, modular station that China is planning could have a mass of about 60 tons. That would be significantly larger than the Tiangdong labs, but still quite large compared to the 420-ton International Space Station.
The launch of China’s larger station could coincide with the possible shutdown of the International Space Station, which NASA and its partners have committed to until 2024. After that time, Russia can go its own way and China has reached out to some European countries involved on the ISS to invite them to visit the station in the mid-2020s. China is also interested in collaborating with the United States, but Congress passed legislation prohibiting NASA from collaborating directly with the country on spaceflight activities.