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China's Space Laboratory Still Cloaked
by Morris Jones for
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Mar 10, 2015

File image.

The recent release of another update on Tiangong 2, China's next space laboratory, has prompted a lot of attention. A recent tightening of Chinese media policies has made this relatively obscured program even more difficult to decipher, and anything we get through official channels is examined closely. We are starving for more information, but sadly, China's latest serving offers little more than crumbs.

China has essentially confirmed that Tiangong 2 is generally on-track. That's probably the most important lesson from the slim media release that circulated in China's state-run media. Tiangong 2 is still set to launch at some time in 2016.

It will receive a crewed visit from the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft, and then a docking with China's first cargo supply spacecraft, Tianzhou 1. Ironically, the cargo spacecraft is larger than the Tiangong laboratory itself. But that's understandable. Tianzhou is really designed to service the large future Chinese Space Station, which also seems to be on track in its development.

Tianzhou will need the new Long March 7 vehicle to carry it to orbit. The underlying message is that Long March 7 must also be on-track in its own development.

This is all reassuring, but we have known the overall mission plan for a long time. A lot of questions remain unanswered.

The most curious technical question concerns the flight of the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft. It will rendezvous and dock with the Tiangong laboratory after its single crew has gone home. Thus, there is no real need for it to deliver logistics to the laboratory. Apart from testing docking, will anything useful be done?

This analyst is really starting to suspect that not much else will happen with Tianzhou. Simply getting a new spacecraft to fly, change orbit, then dock is probably enough for its first flight. We have seen this before with the test flight of Shenzhou 8, which flew without a crew to Tiangong 1.

China has spoken of Tianzhou as a fuel resupply spacecraft. This could well happen with the Chinese Space Station, but will anything be done with Tiangong 2?

It's possible, but this analyst is tipping the balance towards the negative. Tiangong 2 is a tiny laboratory module, using the same basic design as Tiangong 1. It's possible that it's been refitted with a refuelling system, but it's also possible that this would be too much, too soon. Tiangong 2 already features an improved life-support system. This could be enough change and enough progress for the moment.

Then again, it would make a lot of sense to test this complex and dangerous procedure on an expendable test vehicle. That could tip the balance in favour of a test on Tiangong 2, possibly using an inert liquid in place of real hypergolic fuel and oxidiser.

So how much have we really learned from China? Overall, the Tiangong 2 saga remains largely cloaked in mystery. A key lesson is that China seems determined to keep it that way for the moment.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.

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