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.
China plans to launch the core of its permanent Tianhe-1 space station around 2018, with full assembling of the multi-module facility due to be complete about four years later, officials said last week.
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.