Tiangong-2 space lab to remain in orbit until July 2019

By Deng Xiaoci Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/26 17:58:40

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Chinese astronaut Chen Dong, who stayed in the Chinese space lab Tiangong-2 for 30 days in 2016, answers questions at a press conference of the China Manned Space Engineering Office on Wednesday. Photo: Deng Xiaoci/GT

China's space lab Tiangong-2 will continue to operate in orbit before it makes its return to Earth in July 2019 in a controlled manner, Zhu Zongpeng, the chief space lab designer, announced on Wednesday.

Zhu made the announcement at a press conference held by the China Manned Space Engineering Office on Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of the space lab's launch in September 2016.

Zhu said the decision was made by the operation management committee for the Tiangong-2 on September 20, and to achieve more positive results in the space application field, "Tiangong-2 will continue to orbit under its controlled deorbit in July 2019."

"The space lab is operating at near-circular orbits, with an average height of 400 kilometers, and is stable with all its functions working normally," said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, who also spoke at Wednesday's event.

The propellant for the space lab remains sufficient and other indicators, such as the temperature and pressure of its experiment module, all meet the designed performance parameters, which have remained consistent with its initial conditions at orbit entry, Lin noted.

Zhu also said that "as multiple safety control modes have been included with the Tiangong-2 design, the space lab is able to repair parts, if any, that break down when it enters the monitoring and control zone, and to automatically shift to a safe flight mode if such breakdowns are detected outside the zone, guaranteeing the overall safety of the space lab in orbit, and the controlled deorbit process."

First genuine space lab

Hailed by many Chinese space program insiders as the country's "first genuine space lab," Tiangong-2 successfully tested the mid-term stay of Chinese astronauts (30 days) and refueling. Fourteen cutting-edge experiments covering fields like physics, space science and applications have been conducted, and carried as many as 51 payloads weighing over 600 kilograms, according to a statement the China Manned Space Engineering Office issued on Wednesday.

It is by far the busiest single space mission in the country's manned space history, Guo Lili, head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' (CAS) Payload Operation and Application Center (POAC), told the Global Times.

Through the Gamma-ray Burst Polarimeter - POLAR, one of the payloads onboard the space lab, Chinese scientists at the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) under the CAS have not only successfully detected 55 Gamma-ray bursts, but also achieved the country's first in-orbit observation of pulsars, Zhang Shuangnan, Principal Investigator of the IHEP's POLAR project, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Zhuang Shuangnan (second from right), principal investigator of the Gamma-ray bursts-detecting POLAR project on Tiangong-2, poses with his research team at the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences on September 6. Photo: Deng Xiaoci/GT

Detecting Gamma-ray bursts with high quality can help scientists get a better understanding of the formation of black holes and even the universe, while the capture of pulsars is of more practical value. The neutron stars with their extremely stable spinning nature could serve as a natural lighthouse for human deep space exploration in the future, Zhang said.

Admittedly, it is still too early to actually build a pulsar-based navigation system, as it remains in the research stage, Zhang said, noting that as the research develops, it will offer a possible back-up solution in case the country's BeiDou navigation system breaks down in unexpected situations.

The world's first space cold atom clock (CAC) has also been tested successful, and is still running in the Tiangong-2 space laboratory, with an accuracy of within "one second every 30 million years," according to the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics, CAS.

"Almost all fundamental physics quantities could be measured on time or frequency, which means the more accurate the space clocks are, the better scientists can study space physics, such as deep space navigation, gravitational wave and dark matters detection," Qu Qiuzhi, CAC leading designer, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Space stations next

Tiangong-2 has fulfilled its mission in the past two years, marking a successful conclusion to the second stage of China's manned space engineering, and allowing China to move to a new era of space stations, Lin announced on Wednesday.

He said China has come close to completing the development of the core modules for its space station, and plans to conduct a system review by the end of 2018. Proposals for the first batch of loads inside the module as well as external ones have been submitted.

However, the launch of the carrier rocket Long March 5B, which was originally scheduled for the first half of 2019, has been postponed due to the failure of a similar heavy lift rocket Long March 5 Y2 last year, Lin said.

The launch of the new rocket has yet to be determined, he said.


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