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Liftoff for Tiangong-2!On Sept. 15, 2016, China launched its second manned space habitat, the Tiangong-2 module, on a pathfinder mission designed to set the stage for a larger space station scheduled to begin construction in the 2020s. Tiangong-2 launched into orbit uncrewed, riding a Long March 2F rocket (seen here) into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 10:04 a.m. EDT (1404 GMT; 10:04 p.m. local Beijing time). Read our full launch story here
The launch kicks into motion what should become China's longest human spaceflight yet, a 30-day mission by two Chinese astronauts who will launch to Tiangong-2 aboard the country's Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. That mission will launch in the fall of 2016.
See more photos from the Tiangong-2 mission here.
FIRST STOP: Meet Tiangong-2
Meet Tiangong-2Slide 2 of 20
Meet Tiangong-2The Tiangong-2 space lab (shown here in a China Manned Space released image) is a cylindrical spacecraft that appears similar in design to its predecessor Tiangong 1, which launched in September 2011 and ended its mission in early 2016. The Tiangong name means "Heavenly Palace" in Mandarin. Tiangong-2 is 34 feet long (10.4 meters) and powered by twin solar arrays, which can be seen as the blue panels in this image.
China launched two missions to Tiangong 1, an eight-day mission in June 2012 and then again in June 2013 with a 12-day flight. Tiangong-2 weighs in at about 9.5 tons (8.56 metric tons) and will orbit the Earth at an altitude of about 236 miles (380 kilometers), according to state-run Chinese media reports.
Flight controllers with the China Manned Space program will perform a series of tests and checkouts to ensure the spacecraft is ready to host its first long-duration crew. Once those tests are complete, Tiangong-2 is expected to climb to a higher orbit of 244 miles (393 km) - the same altitude that will be used for China's full-size space station.
NEXT: Shenzhou-11 Is ComingSlide 3 of 20
Shenzhou-11 to Follow SoonSlide 4 of 20
Shenzhou-11 to Follow SoonIf all goes as planned, Tiangong-2 will host its first visiting crew in mid-October 2016 when the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft arrives with a two-man crew. China Manned Space has not yet named the two astronauts for that mission. Shown here is an artist's depiction of Shenzhou-11 (left) docked at Tiangong-2.
In 2017, China's first unmanned cargo ship, the Tianzhou-1, is expected to launch to Tiangong-2 to test automated resupply mission technology.
NEXT: Space Station FoundationSlide 5 of 20
Space Station FoundationSlide 6 of 20
Space Station FoundationChina Manned Space views the Tiangong-2 space lab as a major pathfinder for its planned full-size space station. Unlike the Tiangong-1 space missions, which were relatively short duration, astronauts will live and work on Tiangong-2 for weeks at a time, and the arrival of Tianzhou-1 will add a supply line for long-stay crews.
China Manned Space officials have said that the country's full-size space station will be pieced together using modules linked to central hubs, as shown in this air show model.
NEXT:China's Space Station PlanSlide 7 of 20
China's Space Station PlanSlide 8 of 20