The Chinese National Space Administration has set a July 2019 de-orbiting date for the Tiangong-2 space lab, which is still “functioning normally” despite reaching its designed lifespan of two years. The experimental spacecraft was catapulted into orbit in September 2016.
“The Tiangong-2 is currently operating in a near-circular orbit with an average height of about 400 kilometers. The temperature and pressure of the experimental cabin meet the design parameters, and the propellant remains sufficient for even more maneuvers,” Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, told Xinhua this week.
Designers of the Tiangong-2 stressed that there were multiple built-in safety control systems to deal with emergencies and ensure it could safely leave its orbit and largely burn up on re-entry to the atmosphere during its fall back to Earth.
Hailed by state media as China’s first genuine space laboratory, the Tiangong-2 tested its capacity, particularly its life-supporting systems, to sustain a midterm stay of taikonauts (30 days) not too long after its launch. Two Chinese taikonauts spent a month inside it at the end of 2016.
Through a gamma-ray burst polarimeter, one of the payloads aboard the space lab, Chinese scientists at the Institute of High Energy Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences also detected 55 gamma-ray bursts and conducted the country’s first in-orbit observation of pulsars.
The world’s first space cold atom clock has also been ticking on the Tiangong-2, with an accuracy of within “one second every 30 million years,” according to the CAS’s Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics.
The Tiangong-3, a manned space station, is planned to be up and running by around 2022 and to remain in orbit for more than 10 years.
The Chinese Space Administration has planned 13 laboratories and experimental platforms inside the future space station, including a large optical space telescope planned to accompany the Tiangong-3 in orbit.