The mission of China’s Tiangong-2 space laboratory will continue, even after the experimental spacecraft has exceeded its designed lifespan of two years.
That is according to its lead designer Pang Zhihao, who was quoted as saying by Xinhua that the Tiangong-2 was sturdily built and remained in mint condition two years after its September 2016 launch atop a Long March-2F heavy-lifting rocket.
The space lab that received two Chinese taikonauts in 2016 would remain in orbit some 400 kilometers above the ground for many more years to come, Pang said.
The name Tiangong means “Celestial Palace.”
Still, the China National Space Administration is yet to decide what to do with the space lab, whose exact date of de-orbiting is not set either.
But Pang said possible post-lifespan applications could include maneuvers to avoid space debris as well as for some high-definition pictures of the Earth.
The Tiangong-2 was never designed to be a permanent orbital station in the first place. Rather, it was intended as a testbed for key technologies essential for future, more complex modules.
Back in October and November 2016, the Chinese taikonaut duo Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong entered the Tiangong-2 from aboard the Shenzhou-11 space shuttle and then spent almost a month inside the somewhat cramped space lab, after a series of successful docking, rendezvous and in-orbit refueling.
The highlights of the pair’s sojourn in orbit included a spacewalk and a much-hyped science education session for middle-school students televised live nationwide.
This year, the feared chaotic de-orbiting of the Tiangong-1 stirred much worry in the West, so much so that the US state of Michigan declared a state of emergency in March as it braced for the plunge of the Chinese space lab on to its soil. But nothing happened outside Beijing’s plan for Taingong-1′s fall into the South Pacific.
China’s trek into space is set to see a great leap forward as it plans to start putting together its first manned multi-module space station, the Tiangong-3, as early as 2020, whose size will be similar to that of the former Soviet Mir. It is designed to stay in orbit for no less than 15 years.
The 14-cubic-meter, 8.6-ton Tiangong-2 will look like a minnow compared with the colossal space station, which will consist of a core module as well as two experiment labs with a combined weight of 90 tons.