China Plans New Space Laboratory in 2016

China Plans New Space Laboratory in 2016

China plans to launch a second space laboratory in 2016 that will be serviced by a robotic cargo spacecraft.  The new laboratory module reportedly will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the cargo ship with a Long March 7.  Neither of those rockets has made its debut yet.

China launched the Tiangong-1 space laboratory, or space station, in 2011.  Three spacecraft docked with the module:  Shenzhou 8, a robotic spacecraft that tested automated rendezvous and docking, in 2011; Shenzhou 9 in 2012, carrying a three-person crew including China’s first female astronaut (“taikonaut”); and Shenzhou 10 in 2013 with another three-person crew (also two men and one woman).

China’s official Xinhua news service today quoted Zhou Jianping, chief
engineer of China’s human spaceflight program, as updating plans for
China’s next attempts at Earth orbit human spaceflight.  A new module, Tiangong-2, will be launched in 2016 and a robotic Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will deliver propellant, supplies, research facilities and repair equipment.  How many crews will occupy Tiangong-2 over what period of time was not revealed.  Zhou said only that selection of the astronauts was “progressing in an orderly manner.”

Xinhua said Tiangong-2 will be launched with a Long March 5 rocket and the Tianzhou-1 supply ship with a Long March 7.  China said for years that the Long March 5, its largest rocket to date, would make its debut in 2014 from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center on Hainan Island, but that has not happened yet.  Long March 5 will be able to launch 25 tons into low Earth orbit, slightly more than a U.S. Delta IV (22 tons).

Long March 5, 6, and 7 are a new family of rockets being developed to use liquid oxygen/kerosene propellants, more environmentally friendly than the current generation of Long March launch vehicles.  Long March 5 is the largest, Long March 6 the smallest, and Long March 7 for mid-sized payloads.  The U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent annual report on China’s military and security developments, generated in April 2014, anticipated the first Long March 7 launch by the end of 2014, and that did not occur.  It said the first Long March 5 launch would be “no sooner than 2015” because of “recent manufacturing difficulties.”

Tiangong-1 and -2 are steps toward a 60-ton space station the China currently says it will launch in 2022.   It reportedly will be composed of three 20-ton modules.

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