China launches its first crew of astronauts to visit their new experimental space station Monday.
China’s new space station, dubbed Tiangong-2, will host three crew members for between 20 to 30 days. Tiangong-2, which translates to “Heavenly Palace 2,” is currently carrying 14 scientific payloads. China plans to attach two more experiment modules to the station and begin full operations in 2022, operations which will span a decade.
Tiangong-2 is quite small compared to the first Soviet and U.S. space stations. The station weighs 8.6 metric tons, while the 1971 Soviet station Salyut 1 was 18.6 metric tons, and the 1973-launched American Skylab was 77 metric tons. The International Space Station (ISS) now in orbit, is approximately 400 metric tons by comparison and 356 feet long. China’s station will be 47 feet long.
“It is any astronaut’s dream and pursuit to be able to perform many space missions,” Jing Haipeng, a Chinese astronaut on the mission, told a briefing.
China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011 and weighed 8.5 metric tons. The first station is falling out of orbit in an uncontrolled manner and will likely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere late next year.
China considers both of its space stations to be stepping stones to a solar powered Mars rover in 2020. Since launching its first manned space mission in 2003, China staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the Moon and increased its space cooperation with Europe. The country is launching a total of five other crewed flights into space since 2003. China was the third country to launch an astronaut into space after Russia and the U.S. The country intends to one day land astronauts on the moon.
In spite of an impressive laundry list of space milestones, China’s space program still faces serious problems. The Chinese lunar rover was ultimately abandoned due to technical issues. China’s first attempt to send a satellite into Mars orbit failed in 2011 when the rocket carrying it blew up before even reaching Earth orbit.
Meanwhile, NASA astronauts require the help of the Russians to reach space and are being forced by the Obama administration to delay the Mars mission until 2030. Attempts to return U.S. astronauts to orbit aboard the ISS are now in the hands of private companies. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is racing Boeing and Blue Origin to be the first private company to send humans to the ISS, so that NASA can focus on expanding access to space.
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