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The Last Tiangong
by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily.com
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 20, 2015

China will launch Tiangong 2 at some point in 2016, probably within the first three quarters of the year. Later, the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft will carry three astronauts to live aboard Tiangong 2. This analyst guesses that they will stay there for about a month.

In less than a year, China is expected to launch the Tiangong 2 space laboratory. Despite its name, Tiangong 2 is expected to be a small space station, just like its predecessor, Tiangong 1. With its long flights and complex tasks, the Tiangong program has taken China's human spaceflight program to new lengths, but it's really designed to prove the technologies required for the Chinese Space Station (CSS).

This large, modular complex seems to be well on the pathway to launch in a few years. Tiangong is not an end in its own right, but an intermediate step between undocked human space missions and a permanent foothold in space. That's critical. The Tiangong program is useful only as long as it is preparing China for its space station. Once these goals are met, is there any point in continuing with the Tiangong program?

It could be possible to conceive of an extended Tiangong program for small, short-term space expeditions, or setting up experiments in a pressurized laboratory, then letting them run unattended for months. China could launch Tiangong-class miniature space stations to fly alongside big brother CSS. Small space platforms like this have been proposed in the past for other nations, but not implemented.

For the moment at least, it seems that China has no plans to run any more than one active space station at a time. This raises a key question. Will Tiangong 2 be the last of its kind?

This analyst is increasingly supporting the theory that there will be no more Tiangong laboratories launched after Tiangong 2. This theory is largely based on China's launch timetable, which looks increasingly tight.

China will launch Tiangong 2 at some point in 2016, probably within the first three quarters of the year. Later, the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft will carry three astronauts to live aboard Tiangong 2. This analyst guesses that they will stay there for about a month.

Much later, the first Tianzhou cargo spacecraft will be launched to make an experimental docking with Tiangong 2. The two spacecraft will probably practice robotic dockings and undockings. Tianzhou could also possibly boost Tiangong 2's orbit by firing its thrusters when they are docked. Thus, active exercises with Tiangong 2 will probably continue well into 2017.

China is becoming increasingly confident in its schedule for the Chinese Space Station. As recently as the 2015 International Astronautical Congress, China has been promoting 2018 as the year for launching the core module of the station. Other modules will follow progressively, until the station is essentially complete around 2022.

Thus, we really don't have much time between Tiangong 2's mission and the debut of the Chinese Space Station. With such a tight schedule, there doesn't seem to be much room for any more "practice" missions. We can probably state that there will not be a Tiangong 3 laboratory.

That's a critical point for China's human spaceflight program. It suggests that the Tiangong program has been at least as successful as outside observers suspected, and possibly more. China needs some more practice with a slightly more advanced Tiangong laboratory, but if this works out, they will consider themselves station-worthy.

Discussions of a possible Tiangong 3 laboratory were circulating long before Tiangong 1 was launched. At the time, it was expected that Tiangong 3 would be a larger module than Tiangongs 1 and 2, and would represent a prototype module for the Chinese Space Station.

Some sources suggested that Tiangong 3 was actually a provisional designation for the real core module for the Chinese Space Station, and not a test run. Who was right? Was something lost in the garbled reportage of China's space plans, or has the Tiangong program been truncated?

It seems probable that the human spaceflight program is being fast-tracked. China wants a full-blown space station as soon as possible. This approach also saves money by cutting out a redundant test platform.

This analyst wonders if Chinese leader Xi Jinping is behind the acceleration. China has been repeatedly snubbed from joining the International Space Station, mostly due to American opposition. There's a straightforward response to this. If you can't join them, beat them. China is also stepping up the rhetoric on international participation in the CSS, even suggesting that non-Chinese modules could be docked to the station.

If the CSS becomes larger and more international in scope, it could soon become a genuine rival to the American-dominated International Space Station. The future of the International Space Station beyond 2024 is questionable, but the future of China's equivalent is not. Thus, at some point in the future, discussions of the "space station" could possibly reference the Chinese Space Station, and not the International Space Station of the present.

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

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