Update: Liftoff! China's Long March 2F rocket successfully launched with the Tiangong 2 spacecraft on board at 10.04am EDT (3.04pm BST) today. Our original story is below.
Today at 10.04am EDT (3.04pm BST), China is going to be launching its second experimental space station, further proof of the nation’s commitment to its space program.
The launch is taking place from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi Desert. Called Tiangong 2, which translates as “heavenly palace”, the orbital laboratory is 34 feet (10 meters) long and weighs 7.7 tonnes (8.5 US tons), according to Ars Technica.
The launch may be streamed live online at this link, although we’re not entirely sure if it will be or not yet.
This is China’s second laboratory to be launched to space, following Tiangong 1 in 2011. Tiangong 2 is just a single module, unlike the ISS that is made of multiple modules joined together, so it won’t be especially big. But it’s understood that China is using these tests to prepare to build a much larger station in the 2020s, which will be about one-seventh the size of the ISS.
Today’s launch will see a Long March 2F rocket take the laboratory to an orbit 380 kilometers (236 miles) above Earth. The module will initially be unmanned, with two astronauts (known as “taikonauts” in China) set to launch in October aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft and stay aboard for 30 days, when the station will be raised to 393 kilometers (244 miles). China’s first ever cargo spaceship, Tianzhou-1 (“heavenly vessel”), will later resupply the laboratory in April 2017.
According to China’s Xinhua News Agency, experiments related to medicine, physics, and biology will be conducted on the station, which includes things like quantum key transmission, space atomic clocks, and solar storm research.
China has been forced to go it alone with its space program, as the US continues to keep in place controversial rules that prevent NASA working with its Chinese counterpart, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA). As a result, rather than working together, like the US does with Russia on the ISS, China has been busy developing its own independent space program over the last decade, and it's proved rather successful.
It is only the third nation, after the US and Russia, to send humans to space. In 2013, it also followed those two again in performing an unmanned landing on the Moon. And just last month, it launched a quantum communications satellite, the first ever test of this fledgling technology in space.