China de-orbited its Tiangong-2 space station on Friday, ending a precursor mission to the establishment of a large, multi-module station beginning in 2020.
Launched on Sept. 15, 2016, Tiangong-2 hosted a 30-day visit by astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong beginning the following month. The Shenzhou 11 crew tested out the station’s life support and other systems, performed experiments, released a satellite, and grew rice and vegetables before returning to Earth after 33 days in space.
In April 2017, the Tianzhou-1 cargo ship docked with the space station. The automated ship refueled Tiangong-1 and un-docked and re-docked with the station twice in the months that followed. Tianzhou-1 subsequently separated from the station and was de-orbited on Sept. 22, 2017.
Tiangong-2 was 10.4 m (34 ft) long and weighed 8,600 kg (18,960 lb). That is about half the size of the Salyut 1 space station the Soviet Union launched in 1971.
The station’s predecessor, Tiangong-1, hosted six Chinese astronauts during two crew visits in 2012 and 2013.
China plans to launch the Tianhe-1 core module for a permanent space station in 2020. Two laboratory modules would be subsequently attached to the station over the next two to three years. The facility will be roughly the size of the Mir space station built by the Soviet Union beginning in 1986 and about one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station.
China has opened up its human spaceflight program to other nations. European astronauts have been training for flights to the new space station aboard Shenzhou vehicles. And China has offered to fly foreign experiments to the facility.
Two Chinese astronauts returned to Earth safely on Friday after a 30-day stay aboard the Tiangong-2 space station.
Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong were reported to be in good condition after their Shenzhou 11 spacecraft touched down in Inner Mongolia. Their mission, which lasted just over 32 days, was China’s longest human spaceflight.
The two astronauts carried out a series of experiments while on board the space station and tested technologies for use aboard a permanent, multi-module facility that China plans to begin launching around 2018. The station is set to be completed around 2022.
China successfully launched two astronauts into space on Monday morning for a 30-day stay aboard the Tiangong-2 space station.
Veteran Chinese astronaut Jing Haipeng and rookie Chen Dong lifted off aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft from Jiunquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. The Long March 2F booster appeared to perform flawlessly in a launch shown live around the world.
Shenzhou-11 is now in orbit and has deployed its two solar arrays as planned. Chinese officials said the spacecraft is performing as planned. The astronauts will dock with the space station two days from now.
Haipeng, 50, previously flew aboard Shenzhou 7, which was a three-day mission conducted in 2008, and commanded Shenzhou-9 on a 13-day flight to the Tiangong-1 space station in 20012. This is the first flight for Dong, 37.
Tiangong-2 is similar to its predecessor in size and design. It is about half the size of the 20-meter long Salyut 1 space station flown by the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s.
China plans to launch the core of a multi-module space station around 2018. Construction of the facility is expected to be complete four years later.
This mission is the sixth Shenzhou flight with a crew aboard for the three-seat spacecraft, which resembles the Russian Soyuz transport in design. It is the first mission with a crew aboard since Shenzhou-10 in June 2013.
China will end a three-year hiatus in human spaceflight late this year with the launch of the two-person Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to the new Tiangong-2 space station, Chinese officials say. The crew will carry out a 30-day mission aboard the space station before returning to Earth.
Tiangong-2, which is set for launch sometime during the third quarter, is larger and more capable than the Tiangong-1 space station launched in 2011. The first station was visited by two three-person crews on missions lasting 12 and 15 days. The second crew landed in June 2013.
“We have specifically modified the interior of the new space lab to make it more livable for mid-term stays for our astronauts,” said Wang Zhongyang, a spokesman for the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).
“Unlike Tiangong-1, Tiangong-2 will be our first genuine space lab,” he added.
Tiangong-2 is similar in design and size to the Soviet Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 space stations flown in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The new Chinese station has docking ports at both ends to allow for resupply missions.
China plans to send up its new Tianzhou-1 supply ship during the first half of 2017 to verify propellant transfer and other key technologies. The cargo vehicle will be launched by the new medium-lift Long March-7 rocket, which is scheduled to make its inaugural flight later this year.
Chinese officials are not discussing follow-on missions to Tiangong-2. However, some reports say that a second human mission and an additional cargo ship would be launched to the space station in 2018.
Officials also announced plans to launch the core of the permanent Tianhe-1 space station around 2018. The permanent facility will have multiple docking ports to allow for the docking of additional modules. Assembly of the space station is expected to be completed around 2022.
China will launch about 150 of its Long March carrier rockets over the next five years, one of its space chiefs said on Friday, days ahead of celebrations marking the launch of the country’s first satellite 46 years ago.
“In the 13th Five-Year Plan period [2016-2020], we will see about 30 launches [of the Long March series] each year,” Chen Xuechuan, assistant president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, told Xinhua.
There were 86 Long March missions in the five years from 2011 to 2015, and 48 from 2006 to 2010….
The launch of the SJ-10 retrievable scientific research satellite earlier this month marked the 226th mission of the Long March rocket family, and the pace of launches is accelerating.
“Our first 100 Long March missions took us 37 years. But it only took us seven years to complete the latest 100,” Chen said.
Thirty launches annually would be higher than China is planning more than 20 launches this year, including:
Tiangong-2 space station in the fall
Shenzhou-11 with two astronauts for a 30-day mission aboard the space station
Inaugural flights of the Long March 5 heavy lift rocket and the Long March 7 medium lift booster