tiangong-2 on the launchpad
Tiangong-2 on the launchpad. News.cn via Spaceflight Insider
tiangong-2 in assembly
Tiangong-2 is China’s next step toward building a permanent research base in Earth orbit. China National Space Administration via Spaceflight Insider

In 2011, Congress ruled that China is not allowed on the International Space Station because of “national security” concerns. Undeterred, the People’s Republic decided to build its own.

Tiangong-1, which launched in 2011, was the first step in that direction. The unmanned prototype served as a practice for docking spacecraft, and played host to a short manned mission. Now China’s ready for part 2: sending astronauts to live in space for the longer term.

tiangong-2 on the launchpad
Tiangong-2 on the launchpad News.cn via Spaceflight Insider

Tiangong-2 will launch from China’s Gobi Desert at 10:04 p.m. local time on Thursday. A Long March 2F rocket will carry it into orbit 244 miles above the Earth. Then, in October, a crew of two astronauts will travel to the 34-foot-long lab and live there for 30 days.

There, they’ll perform “[e]xperiments related to medicine, physics and biology, such as quantum key transmission, space atomic clocks and solar storm research,” Chinese news agency Xinhua reports.

A third module, Tiangong-3, is expected to launch in the coming years. Its design will inform China’s large modular space station, a more permanent installation expected in the 2020s.

China Tiangong spaceship in space

Tiangong 3

This CGI of the Tiangong 3 space station shows three Tiangong space station modules, a Shenzhou manned module underneath and a Tianzhou automated resupply vehicle all docked together. The new Chinese spaceship would likely replace the Shenzhou in the 2020-2025 timeframe.