09242017Headline:

China launches space lab on road to independent space station

China has successfully launched the Tiangong-2 space laboratory, embarking on the second step of China's plan to create an independent space station, officials say. A manned mission is scheduled for next month.

The space lab, carried on the back of a Long March-2F rocket, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert just after 10 p.m. local time on Thursday. It entered orbit a short time later without any sign of trouble.

Tiangong-2, which means "Heavenly Palace 2", is China's second step towards an independent space station. It is capable of receiving both manned and unmanned spacecraft, but the main purpose of the space lab is to test its systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refueling.

Tiangong-2 will first undergo several weeks of testing before a two-person crew heads for the space lab, and the duo is expected to stay on board for about a month. In addition to testing the lab's systems, the astronauts will also carry out a number of scientific experiments.

The space lab replaces the Tiangong-1 space station prototype, which launched in September 2011 but retired from service earlier this year. China hopes to launch the core module for its permanent space station in 2018, followed by the first laboratory module in 2020 and the second one in 2022.

Tiangong-2 has the capacity to support a crew of two for 30 days, but the permanent station will be equipped to support three astronauts - or taikonauts as they are called in China - for about 40 days.

China is banned from using the International Space Station (ISS) as a result of opposition from the United States, and the exclusion was set in stone in 2011 when the U.S. Congress passed a law that bans scientific collaboration with China over alleged espionage risks.

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