In another step toward building its own space station to rival Russia's now-defunct Mir, China on Sunday announced that it will send its second space lab into orbit later this year. Tiangong-2, or Heavenly Palace-2, will be launched in the third quarter of this year, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported, citing sources in the country’s manned space program.
China also plans to launch the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, which will carry two astronauts on board, in the fourth quarter of this year to dock with Tiangong-2, the program’s spokesperson, whose name was not revealed, told Xinhua. The country will test launch the Long March 7, a rocket it’s developing to carry a cargo spacecraft — named Tianzhou-1, or heavenly vessel — to the Tiangong-2 in early 2017.
“Preparation for the space lab program is progressing steadily,” the spokesperson said. “The astronauts to board the Shenzhou-11 are receiving training, while the Tiangong-2, Shenzhou-11, two Long March-2F carrier rockets to be used to lift them into space, the Long March-7 rocket, and the Tianzhou-1 are either being assembled or undergoing assembly examination.”
Since it sent its first satellite into orbit in 1970, China has been pumping huge piles of cash into its space program. It sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, and in 2011, it launched Tiangong-1 — the first operational component of the Tiangong program, which seeks to put a permanent manned space station into service by 2022.
“By around 2020, the construction of the country's first orbiting space station should be completed,” the spokesperson told Xinhua. “The Tiangong-1 has been in service for four years and a half and is in good working condition, which enables it to remain in orbit for continued operation.”