China's Tiangong-2 space lab to fall to Earth in controlled demolition

Most of craft will burn up, some debris in Pacific

By James Griffiths and Ben Westcott, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

China's Tiangong-2 space lab will re-enter the atmosphere in controlled descent, burn up.

BEIJING - China's second space lab will return to Earth in a controlled demolition Friday, according to the country's space agency.

Most of the craft will burn up in the atmosphere, but a small amount of debris is expected to crash into the South Pacific, far from any land, according to state news agency Xinhua.

Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 and has been in orbit for over 1,000 days, exceeding its planned 2-year life span.

In 2016, two astronauts spent a month inside Tiangong-2 as part of China's longest-ever crewed space mission. They conducted experiments related to medicine, physics and biology.

The space lab's end comes around a year after its predecessor, Tiangong-1, plummeted to Earth in an uncontrolled descent after almost three years in orbit. Plans to bring the craft down in a controlled manner, landing any debris that didn't burn up in the South Pacific's so-called spacecraft graveyard, went awry after the craft "ceased functioning" and scientists lost control.

The Tiangong program (Tiangong means "Heavenly Palace" in English) is intended as the initial steps towards China's ultimate space goal: launching a permanent space station around 2022.

But a space station is just one part of the Chinese government's wide-ranging ambitions when it comes to its space program.

In January, the country landed a probe and rover on the far-side of the moon, a first for humanity. More plans are also underway for future visits to Earth's natural satellite.

In 2020, the next lunar mission, Chang'e 5, is due to land on the moon, collect samples and return to Earth, while preliminary plans are underway for a manned lunar mission in the 2030s. If successful, China would become only the second country, after the United States, to put a citizen on the moon.

"Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world," Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the National Space Administration, said in 2016.

China will make its first visit to Mars with an unmanned probe set to launch by the end of next year, followed by a second mission that would include collection of surface samples from the red planet, setting the stage for an eventual manned mission at some point in the future.

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