Earlier this year the world was abuzz with the news that a Chinese space station, called Tiangong-1, was about to crash on Earth. Well get ready, because now we’ve got another one.
China has said that its Tiangong-2 space station will return to Earth in July 2019. Unlike its predecessor, this will be a controlled re-entry, but it likely will still garner a good deal of attention.
“Tiangong-2 has fulfilled its mission during the two-year time, and all the loads are now in good condition," said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, to state media website CGTN. “It will be in orbit until July 2019, and then will be controlled to deorbit.”
As Xiqiang mentions, Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 as an experimental space laboratory ahead of plans for a larger space station. It’s roughly the size of a single-decker bus, and has welcomed a crew on just one occasion – from October to November 2016.
Since then it has been uncrewed, orbiting our planet at a height of about 400 kilometers (250 miles). In June this year however, Tiangong-2 hit the headlines when astronomers spotted China lowering and raising the station’s orbit. This may have been a test ahead of the controlled re-entry next year.
China is hoping to use the lessons learned from Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 to start constructing a permanent space station in 2022. Not too much is known about this at the moment, although China has said it wants to allow international cooperation on board.
The nation has loftier ambitions, too. Earlier this year it launched the first part in an upcoming mission to the far side of the Moon. That entailed a relay satellite, which will return signals to Earth from a planned rover on the far side, due to launch later this year.
China is also planning to send a probe to Mars in 2020, and has its eye on returning a sample from the surface of Mars some point later. It may do this with a giant new rocket called Long-March 9 that it is constructing, which will rival NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
Before that though, we'll get to watch as another Chinese space station re-enters that atmosphere. It may not be as exciting as the Tiangong-1 re-entry, being controlled and all, but it'll probably still be quite exciting.