China’s second space laboratory, Tiangong-2, moved on to its launchpad on Friday as the country watched on live television, according to CCTV. The spacecraft could blast into orbit as soon as Thursday.
The launch will be a major milestone in China’s efforts to become a superpower, both on and off the surface of the planet. Tiangong-2 follows in the trail blazed by Tiangong-1, which was sent into orbit five years ago.
The second space lab is much like the first, but upgrades to the living quarters and life support will facilitate longer stays for astronauts on board. The plan is to ferry two astronauts out to the craft next month, where they will stay for about 30 days while completing experiments. Tiangong-2 can hold three astronauts at a time at maximum capacity, and will orbit about 250 miles above Earth’s surface.
The Tiangong missions are part of China’s plan to launch a station to rival the International Space Station by 2022. It will be much smaller — just about 60 tonnes compared to the ISS’s 420 tonnes. The Tiangong labs, by comparison, are only eight tonnes apiece.
In 2003, China became the third country to ever launch its own astronauts with its own launch technology into space. While it’s still decades behind the U.S. and Russia, if all goes well with the Tiangong-2 experiment, China will have proved to the world that it is well on its way to catching up to the two other countries very soon.