China has launched its second space station in a sign of the growing sophistication of its military-backed program that intends to send a mission to Mars in the coming years.
The Tiangong 2 was carried into space tonight atop a Long March 7 rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
Plans call for the launch next month of the Shenzhou 11 spaceship with two astronauts to dock with the station and remain on board for a month. The station, whose name means “Heavenly Palace,” is considered a stepping stone to a mission to Mars by the end of the decade.
The Tiangong 2 module will be used for “testing systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling,” and will house experiments in medicine and various space-related technologies.
China’s first space station, Tiangong 1, was launched in September 2011 and officially went out of service earlier this year after having docked with three visiting spacecraft.
Tiangong-2 (Chinese: 天宫二号; pinyin: Tiāngōng èrhào; literally: “Heavenly Palace 2”) is a Chinese space laboratory and part of the Project 921-2 space station program. Tiangong-2 was originally expected to be launched by the China National Space Agency by 2015
The new station is equipped with a new robotic arm and will be accompanied by the small Banxing-2 satellite for technology demonstrations. It will also capture images of the new station in orbit.
Tiangong-2 will be launched with 14 types of experiments that will focus on cutting-edge technologies such as space materials science and space life science.
The station is equipped with a gamma-ray detector (POLAR), a space-Earth quantum key distribution and laser communications experiment to be used in conjunction with the Mozi ‘Quantum Science Satellite’ and a liquid bridge thermocapillary convection experiment and a space material experiment.
Also included is a stereoscopic microwave altimeter, a space plant growth experiment, and a multi-angle wide-spectral imager and multi-spectral limb imaging spectrometer. Onboard TG-2 there will also be the world’s first-ever in-space cold atomic fountain clock.
2016-09-14-230848Also onboard are a range of payloads developed by the National Space Science Centre (NSSC) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) with collaboration from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. This is the POLAR project, a Gamma-ray burst (GRB) detector.
POLAR will use the Compton Scattering Effect to measure the polarization of incoming photons. POLAR makes no attempt to do a precise localization of the GRB in the sky. This greatly simplifies the design of the detector. Currently, special purpose satellites like SWIFT can provide this information immediately.