China launches 2nd lab module for its space station

China has launched the space lab module Mengtian, taking the construction of the country’s space station Tiangong into final stage.

Mengtian, Tiangong’s second lab module now flying to join the two-module combination already about 400 km above Earth, is the last “building block” that allows Tiangong to form a T-shape structure, the planned layout at the space station’s completion.

The new combination is projected to take shape after a succession of elaborately-maneuvered tasks including the docking and the subsequent in-orbit transposition.

The building of Tiangong into a national space laboratory with three modules marks a milestone in China’s three-decade effort to advance its manned space program.

The 17.88-meter-long new module has a takeoff mass of about 23 tonnes. Consisting of a work cabin, a cargo airlock cabin, a payload cabin and a resource cabin, it is the heaviest single-cabin active spacecraft in orbit in the world right now.

Mengtian is designed to be connected to the short message communication services provided by China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System. This channel can be used as an independent telecom link in case of emergency.

In addition, by using a custom-made app on a mobile phone, astronauts can contact their family members on Earth via text or voice messages. Three astronauts of the Shenzhou-14 mission are now waiting for the new workplace, which has an available activity space of some 32 cubic meters.

Mengtian also carries a toolbox equipped with a dexterous robotic arm and an augmented-reality smart glass to assist astronauts with maintenance.