Watch China launch 3 taikonauts to its new space station on Wednesday night – the country’s first human spaceflight in 5 years

chinese taikonauts Nie Haisheng Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo stand at microphones during a press conference
Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo speak at a press conference at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province, China, June 16, 2021.

China started launching parts of its new space station into orbit just two months ago, and it’s already sending people there.

The nation plans to launch three astronauts – taikonauts, as China calls them – into Earth’s orbit at 9:22 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to state-owned broadcaster CGTN.

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo will be the first people to fly to China’s new space station. Their mission, called Shenzhou-12, will take them to the Tianhe module – the station’s first piece, which launched into space in April.

Haisheng, Boming, and Hongbo are expected to live inside the 54-foot-long Tianhe module for about three months, according to CGTN. The module houses the future station’s living quarters.

“I am convinced that with the best wishes of my counterparts in China, and the general preparation, and the rounds of training on us, we are capable of accomplishing this task,” Haisheng said during a press conference on Wednesday, which was translated into English on CGTN.

The last time China flew humans to space was in 2016, when it launched three taikonauts to a temporary space-station prototype, called Tiangong-2. They stayed there for a month. In 2019, the test station fell back towards Earth and burned up in the atmosphere, as planned.

Watch 3 taikonauts launch to China’s new space station

CGTN is broadcasting Wednesday’s launch in English, embedded below.

State-controlled broadcaster CCTV is also airing the launch live with commentary in Mandarin.

9 more launches to build a new space station

Tianhe is the core module of the new Chinese Space Station (CSS). The completed orbiting laboratory is set to weigh 66 tons and accommodate three astronauts at a time. That’s significantly smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs about 450 tons and is roughly the length of a football field. However, the ISS is aging and may be out of commission by the 2030s.

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The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, China, April 29, 2021.

Ultimately, China plans to send taikonauts to the CSS for six-month stints, much like missions to the ISS. China expects to accept other countries’ astronauts on the CSS as well. Dmitry Rogozin, director of Roscosmos, told reporters on Wednesday that Russia plans to send its own cosmonauts there.

For now, these first three taikonauts are set to test out the Tianhe module’s life-support capabilities – its oxygen generation, its ability to filter out the carbon dioxide they exhale, its protections against the radiation of space, and the way it circulates fluids. They will also test communications between the space station and mission controllers on the ground.

The taikonauts are even expected to conduct a few hours-long spacewalks to test China’s newest spacesuits.

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Visitors walk near a model of the Tianhe core module at an exhibition at China Science and Technology Museum in Beijing, April 24, 2021.

If all of that goes well, China plans to launch eight more missions to complete the CSS by the end of 2022. That includes launching two more modules, three more cargo shipments, and three more astronaut crews. The nation has already launched one module and one cargo shipment. All in all, that totals to 11 planned launches.

However, after the Tianhe module launched, the body of the Long March 5b rocket that carried it fell into an uncontrolled orbit around Earth. Usually, rocket bodies are programmed to fall into the ocean, but the Long March 5b booster could have landed anywhere across a vast swath of the planet – including much of the inhabited world.

Fortunately, the rocket body still landed in the ocean. But the incident sparked international outcry and criticism from rocket experts. It’s unclear whether China will alter its rocket design for the next two module launches. The astronaut and cargo missions, however, will use different rockets that China has previously launched without incident.

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Jeff Bezos is trusting Blue Origin’s new rocket with his life. It’s flown 15 times, but he’ll have no pilot and possibly no spacesuit.

Jeff Bezos is seen speaking beside a photo of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket lifting off.
Jeff Bezos (left) is set to launch aboard the New Shepard rocket (right) on July 20.

Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and two unnamed people – at least one of whom is a multimillionaire – are about to place their lives in the hands of Blue Origin’s rocket engineers.

Bezos, who founded the company in 2000, announced on Monday that he and his brother would be the first passengers on its New Shepherd rocket, along with the highest bidder for the third seat. The as yet unnamed winner of that auction bid $28 million on Saturday to go on the trip. (The money will go to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future.) A fourth person will join them as well.

The group will strap into a capsule on the top of the five-story rocket as early as July 20.

“Bezos is a risk-taker,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “He certainly understands that there are risks involved, and probably has a good handle on how risky it is.”

For the rest of us – who don’t have access to Blue Origin’s rocket design or risk calculations – it’s difficult to say just how much risk Bezos is taking. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. But a few key factors offer clues.

New Shepard has flown successfully before – 15 times – but never with humans onboard. The rocket has a good test-flight record, and it features an emergency system that can jettison the passenger capsule away from a failing rocket. Plus, the whole trip is only 11 minutes long.

At the same time, however, Bezos will fly with no pilot, and probably no spacesuit. And no matter how safe New Shepard is, spaceflight is always risky. About 1% of US human spaceflights have resulted in a fatal accident, according to an analysis published earlier this year.

“That’s pretty high. It’s about 10,000 times more dangerous than flying on a commercial airliner,” George Nield, a co-author of that report, told Insider. Nield formerly served as the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator and led its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“In order to learn how to do this safer, more reliably, and more cost effectively, many people believe we need to keep gaining experience by having more and more of these flights,” he added. “[Bezos] obviously has made the decision that having millions of people living and working in space is something that he strongly believes in, and he wants to do his part to help make that happen in some small way.”

Skimming the very edge of space lowers the risk

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Jeff Bezos inside a New Shepard Crew Capsule mockup at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 5, 2017.

If all goes according to plan on the day of Bezos’ flight, here’s what it’ll look like: The New Shepard rocket will fire its engines, spewing flame and smoke across the plains of West Texas. As it screams through the atmosphere, the force of the climb and the pull of Earth’s gravity – which will feel three times stronger than normal – will pin the Bezos brothers and their guests into their seats.

After three minutes, the rocket should separate from the capsule and fall back to Earth. The passengers will feel weightless as they clear the boundary of space.

The view from space on New Shepard's 15th flight, April 14, 2021.
The view from space on New Shepard’s 15th flight, April 14, 2021.

Bezos and his companions will have just three minutes in space. During that time, they can unbuckle and float around the cabin, drifting from one window to another to savor the views of Earth on one side of the spaceship and the blackness of space on the other.

As gravity takes hold again and the spaceship begins to fall back to Earth, Bezos and his co-passengers will strap in for a high-speed plunge. They will likely feel a significant jerk as three parachutes balloon into the air to brake the spaceship’s fall.

The New Shepard crew capsule parachutes to a landing at Blue Origin's Launch Site One in Texas on January 14.
The New Shepard crew capsule parachutes to a landing at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Texas, January 14, 2021.

The parachutes should carry the capsule to a gentle landing in the Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting.

This type of flight is referred to as suborbital, since the capsule won’t enter orbit around Earth. Blue Origin designed and built New Shepard specifically to carry high-paying customers to the edge of space. The rocket is too small, and its engines don’t have enough thrust, to push itself into orbit.

But keeping the flight short and suborbital comes with pluses: There’s less chance that something will go wrong, and the vehicle is easier to control because its engines are smaller and the rocket is traveling slower than would be needed to reach orbit.

If Bezos’ flight goes well, the new launch system could look more attractive to future space tourists.

New Shepard is thoroughly tested and has an emergency-escape system

Blue Origin's reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket launches toward space in 2016.
Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket launches toward space in 2016.

The most nail-biting parts of this spaceflight will probably be when the engines burn for liftoff, when the rocket separates from the capsule, and when the parachutes deploy.

“You have a high-performance piece of machinery in the rocket engine that could break, come apart, do bad things,” Logsdon said.

New Shepard has executed all these maneuvers many times before – just not with people on board. It’s flown 15 times since 2015, with three successful tests of its emergency-escape system, which would jettison the capsule away from a failing rocket.

If a parachute fails to deploy, the capsule is designed to give more thrust to its downward-facing engines to help it land safely. If two chutes fail, a crushable “bumper” section on the bottom of the capsule should absorb the impact of landing.

“The capsule is the most highly redundant and safe spaceflight system, we think, that has ever been designed or flown,” Gary Lai, senior director of New Shepard’s design, said in a Blue Origin video about safety, posted online in April. “In most cases, you have a backup to the backup system.”

Logsdon described the New Shepard testing process as “very thorough” and “slow-paced.” He pointed out that the Space Shuttle’s very first flight had humans on board.

“Compared to the Space Shuttle Program, this is a far less risky undertaking,” Logsdon said.

Flying without spacesuits could add risk, but it may be safer if someone vomits

Ever since the Challenger disaster in 1986 – when the Space Shuttle broke apart during launch, killing all seven crew members – all NASA astronauts have worn pressurized spacesuits for launch and landing.

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A sneak peek at the final design of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule for suborbital space tourists.

Spacesuits would not have saved those aboard Challenger, but they could save lives if a space capsule experiences a cabin leak yet remains intact.

Blue Origin’s website, however, indicates that New Shepard passengers will wear only a jumpsuit – not a pressurized spacesuit and helmet. According to CNN, there are oxygen masks in the capsule, much like on an airplane, in case the cabin becomes depressurized. The company hasn’t specified what Bezos or his companions will wear, however.

Both Nield and Logsdon said the chance of a cabin leak is very small. So the decision to wear a spacesuit or not depends mostly on the design of the capsule. If it has especially thick skin and strong windows, and if its systems can accommodate hiccups and technical errors without endangering the passengers, then flying without a spacesuit could be safe.

When it comes to flying tourists, it may even be better to skip the spacesuit, since first-time fliers often throw up during launch or landing.

“Especially if you are not a trained and experienced astronaut, wearing a spacesuit could be riskier if you got sick,” Nield said.

If you weren’t sufficiently trained to operate the spacesuit, you could choke on your own vomit.

A fully automated flight with no pilots isn’t necessarily a safety issue

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An interior view of Blue Origin’s Crew Capsule mockup at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 5, 2017.

New Shepard conducts its flights autonomously.

“Its design does not allow anybody to do much flying,” Logsdon said.

That’s not necessarily more risky than a rocket that requires a pilot, as long as the passengers are properly trained on what to do in an emergency.

Still, this fully automated launch system is relatively new, and lots of things can go wrong during early flights. Rocket failures can often be traced back to small errors across all kinds of hardware and software. It is rocket science, after all.

“Until we get lots of experience, like we’ve had with millions of airplane flights over the years, then there’s going to be some learning involved. And we’re going to get some surprises along the way. And there’s going to be some more accidents or incidents in future years,” Nield said. “With cars and boats and planes and trains, people die every year. And spaceflight is not going to be any different when it comes to that.”

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Unconfirmed report suggests Branson may try to beat Bezos into space – and Virgin Galactic didn’t deny it

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Jeff Bezos (left) and Richard Branson (right) may be in a very tight space race.

The billionaire space race appears to be in full swing, and it’s getting close. Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson may both have the edge of space in their sights next month.

Bezos announced on Monday that he plans to fly into space aboard the New Shepard rocket developed by Blue Origin, the aerospace company he founded in 2000. The launch is set for July 20.

The following day, a report from Douglas Messier, who runs the longtime space blog Parabolic Arc, indicated that Virgin Galactic may be racing to launch its own founder, Branson, before Bezos. A “source who requested anonymity” told Messier that the company plans to fly Branson on a test flight of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 weekend. That would poise Branson to beat Bezos to space by a narrow two weeks.

According to Messier’s source, the company began making those plans in response to Blue Origin setting the date for its first crewed flight. Blue Origin made that announcement on May 5 – long before Bezos shared that he would be on board.

Insider was not able to independently confirm Messier’s report. But in a statement to Insider, a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic did not deny the report’s claims.

“At this time, we have not determined the date of our next flight,” the spokesperson said.

Branson’s flight is “expected in the summer months,” the spokesperson added, as is a separate test flight with four “mission specialists” – employees playing the role of future passengers.

Virgin Galactic has previously stated that the mission specialists would fly before Branson. But as of Wednesday, the spokesperson did not respond to a question about which of the two flights would come first.

“One could easily imagine just sort of swapping the flights, or having Richard Branson fly in one of those four seats, just as a test subject, if you will,” George Nield, a former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, where he led its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told Insider.

Branson has “been in some pretty risky things in his career,” Nield added. “And he obviously believes in this program. If he’s comfortable that everything’s good and is willing to go himself, then more power to him.”

“It’s kind of amusing, these billionaires entertaining themselves by being on the first flights of their vehicles,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “Starship is supposed to do an orbital test, too. Is Elon [Musk] going to take the bait and fly on that?”

Launching Branson by July 4 is ‘very doable’

Virgin Galactic
A SpaceShipTwo space plane returns to Earth after a supersonic flight.

Virgin Galactic could easily get through the paperwork to fly Branson by July 4, according to Nield.

“To me, it looks absolutely very doable,” he said, though he emphasized that he is not privy to communications between Virgin Galactic and the FAA, which licenses commercial rocket launches.

Virgin Galactic might have to modify its license with the FAA in order to fly Branson. The modification would allow the company to fly “participants” as well as crew members (in this case, pilots and mission specialists). But Nield says that modification would be simple and quick, as long as the data from the last flight doesn’t reveal any major issues.

“The change in the license is just to say: ‘delete paragraph five,'” Nield said. “So it’s not a big deal.”

Branson could even get a new role as a crew member – acting as a mission specialist, for example. Then Virgin Galactic may not have to modify its license at all in order to fly him.

“In my opinion, there is nothing preventing Richard Branson from also flying as a member of the flight crew,” Nield said. “He is an employee of the company, and they can assign him whatever duties they want to. That’s not something the FAA gets involved in. That’s up to the company.”

When Insider asked about the report, an FAA spokesperson declined to comment on whether Virgin Galactic was pursuing a launch next month. Instead, the agency pointed out the “participant” license modification.

It’s not clear how much Virgin Galactic would have to change or speed up its original plans in order to get Branson to space before Bezos.

“If you hurry there’s always the possibility of cutting corners, but the people that are managing the flight have a pretty high incentive not to kill their boss,” Logsdon said.

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Jeff Bezos will spend just 3 minutes in space, without a pilot. His launch will be unlike any prior US spaceflight.

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Jeff Bezos (left) is set to launch aboard the New Shepard rocket (right) on July 20.

Jeff Bezos is preparing to rocket into space on July 20, but he won’t be there for very long. With Earth shining outside the windows, Bezos will float around the cabin of his company’s New Shepard spaceship for just three minutes before he has to strap into his seat again and fall back to the ground.

Blue Origin, the rocket company that Bezos founded in 2000, plans to use this launch system to carry tourists up to the edge of space. New Shepard’s goal is simple: give paying customers the ride of their lives. Passengers will get a few minutes of stunning views out of the largest windows of any spaceship in the world.

This is the first launch system designed for that purpose, and Bezos will be among the first people to fly on it, alongside his brother Mark and the highest bidder for the third seat. Combined, these factors make this flight unlike any other before it.

“Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of traveling to space,” Bezos said in a Monday Instagram post announcing his plans to rocket into space.

“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure – it’s a big deal for me,” he added in an accompanying video.

In this dream-realizing flight of Bezos’s, there will be no pilot, since the process is automated – and perhaps not even spacesuits either. Here’s what to expect.

3 minutes of weightlessness

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Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard suborbital rocket launches toward space in 2016.

On launch day, Bezos, his brother, and a to-be-determined multimillionaire will climb into the round, spacious cabin of the New Shepard and strap in. If all goes according to plan, the rocket will then fire its engines, spewing flame and smoke across the plains of West Texas, in order to heave itself off the launchpad and into the skies.

As New Shepard screams through the atmosphere, the force of its climb and the pull of Earth’s gravity will pin the Bezos brothers and their guest into their reclining seats.

After just three minutes, they will suddenly feel weightless. They’ll have another three minutes to unbuckle and float around the cabin, drifting from one window to another. Those windows, which make up one-third of the capsule’s surface, will show the passengers the curve of Earth on one side of the spaceship and the blackness of space on the other.

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The view from space on New Shepard’s 15th flight, April 14, 2021.

Astronauts have a term for the feeling of awe this view of Earth can inspire: “the Overview Effect.”

“When we look down at the Earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile,” Ron Garan, an astronaut who spent 177 days in space, explained in a 2013 documentary film titled “Overview.”

He added: “Anybody else who’s ever gone to space says the same thing because it really is striking and it’s really sobering to see this paper-thin layer and to realize that that little paper-thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death, basically.”

Briefly, for just a minute or two, the New Shepard spaceship should clear the Kármán line – an imaginary boundary 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, where space begins.

Then as gravity takes hold again and the spaceship begins to fall back to Earth, Bezos and his co-passengers will strap in for a high-speed plunge through the atmosphere. Then the capsule should deploy three parachutes – likely giving the passengers a significant jerk as the chutes balloon into the air to brake the spaceship’s fall.

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The New Shepard crew capsule parachutes to a landing at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Texas, January 14, 2021.

After that, the parachutes should carry the capsule to a gentle landing in the Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting to retrieve the Bezoses and their companion.

Meanwhile, the rocket booster will fall back to Earth separately, fire its engines to slow itself to about 5 mph, and self-land on a concrete pad, to be restored and fly again another day.

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The New Shepard booster lands after the vehicle’s fifth flight, May 2, 2019.

The whole journey will last about 11 minutes. That’s because New Shepard is a suborbital rocket. It’s too small, and its engines don’t have enough thrust, to push itself into orbit. So any tourists riding it, including Bezos, will just get to peek above the edge of space.

Another rocket company, Virgin Galactic, has flown people on similar suborbital flights before. But their missions require pilots to land their plane-like vehicle. For New Shepard, the entire flight is automated, so there will be no pilots or professional astronauts on board.

No spacesuits, either?

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A dummy called Mannequin Skywalker flies onboard the New Shepard in a Blue Origin flight suit, January 14, 2021.

Blue Origin hasn’t specified whether Bezos or his companions will wear a pressurized spacesuit and helmet during their flight. But the company’s website indicates that New Shepard passengers will wear only a jumpsuit.

NASA astronauts and their international counterparts all wear pressurized spacesuits when they launch or land. NASA started requiring this after the Challenger disaster in 1986, when the Space Shuttle broke apart during launch, killing all seven crew members.

Spacesuits probably would not have saved the people aboard Challenger, but they could save lives if a space capsule happens to experience a cabin leak yet remain intact.

Blue Origin did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the upcoming flight. The New Shepard has flown successfully 15 times and has twice tested an emergency-escape system that should jettison the capsule and its passengers away from a failing rocket.

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Pieces of a runaway Chinese rocket have rained down on the Indian Ocean, quelling fears it would hit people or property

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The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, takes off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, China April 29, 2021.

  • An uncontrolled Chinese rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Indian Ocean Saturday.
  • The rocket had been hurtling towards Earth for a week, with no one knowing when or where it would land.
  • The landing quelled fears that debris from the rocket might have fallen on people or property.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A Chinese rocket falling toward Earth at around 18,000 miles an hour reentered the atmosphere late Saturday, landing in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, China’s space agency reported, according to the South China Morning Post.

It was the 22.5-ton core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station on April 28. For the last week, the 10-story-tall cylinder was hurtling around Earth uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. No space agency was certain when it would fall or where it would land.

Although the rocket stage ultimately landed in the ocean, there was a small chance it could have rained more than 5 tons of debris onto unsuspecting people or property.

As the rocket stage fell through Earth’s atmosphere, friction likely heated the surrounding air to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket stage likely fell apart in this heat and most likely burned up. But experts stressed that some parts could come through the heat intact.

The general rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that would be 5 to 9 metric tons of debris.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbing, said at a briefing on Friday that the rocket stage posed little threat, the Associated Press reported.

“As far as I understand, this type of rocket adopts a special technical design, and the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and destructed during the re-entry process, which has a very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground,” Wang said.

Space debris experts agreed that any surviving pieces of the Long March 5B rocket stage were unlikely to hit inhabited areas, much less planes or boats. Most of the Earth consists of water and much of its land is uninhabited by people.

Still, the object’s orbit took it as far north as New York and Beijing and as far south as New Zealand and southern Chile.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5b rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider last week.

It’s not clear whether this uncontrolled fall was an accident

The US Space Force and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, both tracked the rocket stage as it lost altitude.

“For those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement, to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Thursday, according to The Guardian.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.” China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage had fallen into orbit.

Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

Either way, Logsdon said, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China launched a Long March 5b once before, in May 2020, with the same outcome. That launch was a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit, and the rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled, six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

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A Long March-5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, Tianhe, stands at the launching area of the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23, 2021.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two more of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage to ensure it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive and may reduce how much cargo the rocket can carry.

Still, Logsdon is hopeful that China will change its future launch plans based on the international response to this one.

“China in 2007 did an anti-satellite test that created a lot of debris and created a lot of international criticism. And they have not repeated that kind of test since then,” Logsdon said. “So it’s conceivable that international pressure could influence the next couple of launches.”

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Somewhere on Earth, it could rain rocket parts this weekend as a runaway Chinese spacecraft breaks up in the atmosphere

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket
The Long March 5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station takes off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center in Hainan province, China, on April 29.

Sometime this weekend, somewhere on Earth, it’s probably going to rain rocket parts.

That’s because a 22.5-ton cylinder is hurtling around the planet uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. It’s the body of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station last week.

The rocket body is expected to fall to Earth sometime this weekend, most likely on Saturday. That’s according to projections from the US Space Force, Russia’s space agency, and the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research firm that receives US funding.

At this point, it is impossible to accurately estimate where the rocket stage will fall. Projections show it entering the atmosphere in a roughly 20-hour window. During that period, the rocket stage will circle Earth several times.

The spacecraft’s orbit takes it over a vast swath of the planet – from Los Angeles to New York to southern Europe to Beijing, down through most of Australia, Africa, and South America. Mostly, though, it will fly over oceans and uninhabited land.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5B rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

As the rocket stage falls through Earth’s atmosphere, friction will heat the surrounding air to roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket will likely fall apart in this heat, and parts of it may burn up, but other pieces may survive.

Experts estimate that more than 5 metric tons – 11,000 pounds – of rocket parts will rain down somewhere on Earth. That might include fuel tanks, thrusters, large parts of the rocket’s engines, and bits of metal and insulation.

Most likely, all that debris will land in the ocean.

“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small – not negligible, it could happen – but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal-threat basis,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting Earth, told CNN.

Still, this is an “unusual situation,” Logsdon said, and China might have some explaining to do.

‘China owes the international community an explanation’

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The Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.”

China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage was circling the planet and slowly losing altitude. Unlike most modern rocket stages, it had fallen into an unstable orbit. Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed. Chinese authorities have not offered an explanation.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

This rocket has launched once before, with the same outcome. China first launched the Long March 5B in May 2020, in a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit. That rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

Experts can only estimate how much of the rocket body will slam into the Earth. A rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that means 5 to 9 metric tons would reach the ground.

“This stage and its predecessor last May are the sixth- and seventh-largest objects to ever reenter,” Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees the Aerospace Corporation’s space-debris analysis, told Insider.

“The probability that a piece of space debris will land on a city or a densely populated area is usually relatively small,” he added. “But note that this reentry will occur between 41.5 degrees north and 41.5 degrees south latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world’s population lives.”

spacex starship explosion debris
Pieces of debris scattered near Boca Chica, Texas, after the explosion of an uncrewed prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket in March.

If any rocket parts land on people or their property, China could be on the hook for the damage. Under the 1972 Space Liability Convention treaty, the launching nation is liable for its rockets and any damage they cause.

“I hesitate to use the word irresponsible,” Logsdon said. “I would like a clearer understanding from the Chinese side of why this is happening.”

But he added, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch the Long March 5B rocket lifting off on April 29.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage so that it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive, according to Muelhaupt – it may require significantly altering the design or even cutting how much cargo the rocket can carry.

“Nevertheless, this is a best practice and is rapidly becoming a global norm,” he said.

Logsdon is hopeful that international pressure could influence China’s launch plans.

“One would hope that if indeed there is, as predicted, pieces that survive reentry, that there would be changes made in the Long March 5B for the next two launches,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

SpaceX’s high-flying Starship prototype has finally landed successfully – a big step towards Elon Musk’s reusable mega-rocket

spacex starship sn15 landing success happy elon musk
The SN15 prototype stuck the landing (left), a big step towards becoming the reusable rocket Elon Musk (right) wants it to be.

On Wednesday, SpaceX sent the latest prototype of its mega-rocket system roaring six miles above Texas, its fifth such launch since December.

SpaceX is no stranger to Starship launches, but unlike the last four attempts, this prototype landed smoothly, without blowing up during its first 15 minutes back on Earth. A previous prototype exploded 10 minutes after landing, after a fire burning around its skirt wouldn’t go out. But this time, the fire at the prototype’s feet appeared to be extinguished.

“Starship landing nominal!” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, CEO, and chief engineer, declared on Twitter.

This version of the spaceship, called Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, followed the same trajectory as its predecessors. The 16-story rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. As it approached the peak of its flight, the vehicle shut off two of its three truck-sized Raptor engines. It hovered at roughly 33,000 feet before cutting the final engine, then tipped sideways and plunged back to Earth. As it neared the ground, the engines reignited to flip the rocket upright, and then it lowered itself to the landing pad.

As of Wednesday afternoon, SN15 was still sitting upright and intact on the landing pad.

A final version of this mega-spaceship is set to become NASA’s next moon lander – the vehicle that could put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

starship moon human landing system
An illustration of SpaceX’s Starship as a lander carrying NASA astronauts to the moon.

Musk has an ambitious vision for the launch system. The prototypes his company is launching are meant to be the upper stage of a two-part system. Eventually, a roughly 23-story booster called Super Heavy would heave the spaceship toward orbit. Musk wants this system to carry humans into low-Earth orbit, to the moon, and even to Mars, then return to Earth to do it again. The smooth landing of SN15 gets Starship a big step closer to being the reusable vehicle Musk wants.

“It’s a tough vehicle because we’re trying to crack this nut of a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” Musk said in a NASA press conference on April 23. “Somebody’s got to do this. And if you have rapid and complete reusability, then that is the gateway to the heavens.”

SpaceX is building a booster that could carry Starship to orbit

The SN15 was the second of the five high-flying Starships SpaceX has launched that touched down in one piece – at least initially. The other was SN10, which landed in one piece in early March but blew up 10 minutes later. The first two Starship prototypes that soared to a high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, both slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. Another, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
From left to right: The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

SpaceX began assembling its first prototype of the Super Heavy booster – the other part of the Starship system – at its Texas facilities in mid-March. Musk said this version of Super Heavy is just for production testing, though the next prototype should fly.

To grasp the size of this launch system, look for the person standing on the lift in this photo Musk shared on Twitter. Starship, not pictured, would sit on top of that booster.

In addition to landing astronauts on the moon, Musk wants the Starship-Super Heavy system to power hypersonic travel on Earth. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships that would carry people and cargo to Mars in order to establish a self-sustaining settlement.

Making Starship-Super Heavy reusable could slash the cost of reaching space by “a factor of 100 or more,” according to Musk. Its enormous size would allow it to carry large payloads to space, including tens of thousands of Starlink internet satellites that SpaceX plans to put into orbit.

In short, this is the launch system on which SpaceX is staking its future. But there are several hurdles to clear before it can reach space.

Environmental reviews could slow Starship’s journey to orbit

spacex starship super heavy spaceship booster rocket launch boca chica south texas illustration
An illustration of SpaceX’s planned 39-story Starship rocket system launching from Boca Chica, Texas.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has already booked tickets for himself and eight others for a week-long Starship flight around the moon in 2023. The group is set to become the spaceship’s first passengers. After that, NASA hopes that Starship will return astronauts to the moon in 2024. But a report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” NASA will meet that deadline.

In addition to successfully landing Starship prototypes, SpaceX will need to integrate the Super Heavy booster with the spaceship, learn to launch the two parts together, and show it can land the booster in one piece.

The company will also need to rocket a Starship into orbit to test its ability to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. That will require a new type of launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which involves many regulatory hurdles, including a thorough environmental assessment. Depending on the findings of that assessment, it’s possible SpaceX may need to conduct a new environmental impact statement, which could take up to three years.

Complicating matters is a leaked FAA draft document obtained by Insider that revealed SpaceX’s plans to dig natural gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. Such plans could prolong SpaceX’s environmental review process.

Still, Musk maintains that Starship could fly its first people in “a couple years.” He has also said he is “highly confident” that SpaceX will launch an uncrewed Starship to Mars in 2024, followed by a crewed mission in 2026.

“I tend to be somewhat optimistic with respect to schedules. I feel I should acknowledge this,” he said in the NASA briefing. “So take that with a grain of salt. But I think it’s not out of the question that it could fly people in a couple years.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Watch SpaceX launch its newest Starship prototype. The last 4 exploded.

elon musk starship thumb 4x3
Elon Musk (center) wants Starships to fly to Mars. But so far the only prototype to land successfully (left) exploded 10 minutes later (right).

Update: The SN15 prototype flew and landed successfully on Wednesday. Read more in our story.

SpaceX is about to launch its fifth high-flying Starship prototype on Wednesday afternoon. The spaceship is ready to lift off from the company’s Texas rocket facilities.

Known as Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, the vehicle is the latest in a series of prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas. Eventually, a version of this Starship mega-spaceship is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander, which would put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

The plan for the SN15 flight calls for the rocket to shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one as it approaches the peak of its flight. Then the spaceship should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall. As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright and gently lower to the landing pad.

That last step is where its four predecessors have failed.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

The first two prototypes that soared to high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

Watch Starship’s flight live

SpaceX is set to stream live from the launchpad and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are, starting at 5:20 p.m. CT.

A few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are also broadcasting live from Boca Chica.

The NASASpaceflight’s video stream offers knowledgeable broadcasters and multiple quality camera views.

The commentators on the feed keep track of preparations at the SpaceX facilities that indicate progress toward liftoff – things like clearing the launchpad, activity in the tank farm next to SN15, and the loading of liquid propellant into the rocket.

LabPadre, meanwhile, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. That YouTube channel is run by Louis Balderas, who lives across the bay from Boca Chica. Below is its main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a resort in South Padre Island, about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace-closure notice for the Boca Chica area to make way for launch on Wednesday. A Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures. Both closures end at 8 p.m. CT, so SpaceX must launch by then.

Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. But they can change day to day depending on SpaceX’s plans and FAA procedure. If SN15 does not fly on Wednesday, further closures indicate that SpaceX could try again on Thursday or Friday.

A series of Starship explosions

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, Logsdon added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk-taker is willing to get aboard.”

Success may be even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced earlier this month that it is working with SpaceX to turn Starship into a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship on the lunar surface in 2024, though a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet that deadline.

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, recently predicted that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”

His goals for the launch system extend far beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships to carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there.

For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.

“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk said in a NASA press conference last month, referring to the explosions. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published April 19.

Read the original article on Business Insider

SpaceX is preparing to launch its newest Starship prototype on Wednesday. The last 4 exploded.

elon musk starship thumb 4x3
Elon Musk (center) wants Starships to fly to Mars. But so far the only prototype to land successfully (left) exploded 10 minutes later (right).

SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship prototype. The spaceship could lift off from the company’s Texas rocket facilities on Wednesday afternoon.

Known as Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, the vehicle is the latest in a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas. Eventually, a version of this mega-spaceship is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander, which would put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

The plan for the SN15 flight calls for the rocket to shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one as it approaches the peak of its flight. Then the spaceship should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall. As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright and gently lower to the landing pad.

That last step is where its four predecessors have failed. The first two prototypes that soared to high altitudes, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speeds and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.

starship prototype explosions collage spacex boca chica spadre
The SN8, SN9, and SN10 explosions.

For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.

“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”

But, Logsdon added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk-taker is willing to get aboard.”

Success may be even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.

The agency announced earlier this month that it is working with SpaceX to turn Starship into a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship on the lunar surface in 2024, though a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet that deadline.

starship moon human landing system
SpaceX’s Starship human lander would carry NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, recently predicted that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”

His goals for the launch system extend far beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships to carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there.

For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.

“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk said in a NASA press conference last month, referring to the explosions. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”

How to watch Starship’s flight live

During the test flight, SpaceX is likely to stream live from the launchpad and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are. During past Starship flights, the up-close cameras have provided stunning footage, like this clip of SN9.

SpaceX’s live feed of the SN15 launch will be embedded here once it becomes available. A few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company also broadcast live from Boca Chica.

We recommend starting with NASASpaceflight’s video stream, given the broadcasters’ knowledge and multiple quality camera views.

The commentators on the feed keep track of preparations at the SpaceX facilities that indicate progress toward liftoff – things like clearing the launchpad, activity in the tank farm next to SN15, and the loading of liquid propellant into the rocket.

LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, who lives across the bay from Boca Chica, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. Below is the channel’s main 4K-resolution feed.

For a more distant view of the launch site – broadcast from the top of a resort in South Padre Island, about 6 miles away – check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace-closure notice for the area to make way for launch on Wednesday. A Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures. Both closures end at 8 p.m. CT, so SpaceX must launch by then.

Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. But they can change day to day depending on SpaceX’s plans and FAA procedure. If SN15 does not fly on Wednesday, further closures indicate that SpaceX could try again on Thursday or Friday.

This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published April 19.

Read the original article on Business Insider

China is set to launch the first piece of its new space station on Wednesday night

china space station launch Long March-5B Y2 rocket
The Long March-5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station Tianhe, at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, April 23, 2021.

  • China is set to launch the first module of its new space station as early as Wednesday night.
  • China plans to complete its space station with 11 launches, some involving astronaut crews, by 2022.
  • The rocket launch may be broadcast live in Mandarin and English.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China is planning to build its own space station, and it’s set to launch the first module as early as Wednesday night.

This core module, called Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” is currently tucked inside the nosecone of a Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang Launch Center on the island of Hainan. The rocket is “designed specifically for launching space-station modules,” according to Andrew Jones, a reporter covering China’s space program.

The rocket is scheduled to lift off during a one-hour window starting at 11 p.m. ET on Wednesday – which is noon on Thursday in China.

GettyImages 1313957056
A Long March-5B Y2 rocket carrying the core module of China’s space station, at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23, 2021.

This will be the Long March 5b’s second launch – its first was a test launch of a spaceship prototype.

US policy has effectively blocked China from sending astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and forbidden NASA from working with the nation.

China first started its independent human-spaceflight program in 1992. Three decades later, it’s beginning to build its own Earth-orbiting habitat. The country aims to complete the Chinese Space Station (CSS) by the end of 2022. Between now and then, it plans to launch 11 missions to carry three modules (including Tianhe), four cargo shipments, and four astronaut crews, according to The Associated Press.

The complete space station is set to weigh 66 tons, with enough room for three astronauts to live inside the Tianhe module. At least 12 Chinese astronauts are currently training for CSS stints, according to the AP.

The spacecraft for the first astronaut mission to the CSS is already being assembled, and the crew could launch as early as June, Jones reported for Space.com.

The overall plan for CSS calls for it to be significantly smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs about 450 tons and is roughly the length of a football field. As many as 13 people have been on the ISS at one time during mission overlaps.

Watch the Tianhe module launch live

State-controlled broadcaster CCTV may air the launch live with commentary in Mandarin. The China Global Television Network could also broadcast the launch in English on its Youtube channel, according to Jones.

china long march rocket launch tianwen-1 mars
The Long March 5 Y-4 rocket, carrying the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, takes off from China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center, July 23, 2020.

This wouldn’t be China’s first space station. It previously sent two experimental modules into orbit: The first, Tiangong-1, launched in 2011, and its successor, Tiangong-2, followed in 2016. The two space-station prototypes hosted a handful of Chinese astronauts before Tiangong-1 was abandoned, lost its orbit, then broke apart and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in 2018. A year later, China steered Tiangong-2 into the atmosphere to meet a similar fate.

A new space race

Russia has begun work on its own space station as well. Russian officials said last week that the country’s space agency aims to launch its core station module in 2025, and might eventually withdraw from the ISS.

Together, Russia and China are also co-developing a lunar research station, independent of NASA’s plans to build a lunar Gateway station. Both projects aim to establish a permanent human presence on the moon.

Meanwhile, on Mars, China is preparing to land a rover in a water-rich region of the red planet. The mission, called Tianwen-1, would be the first to deliver an orbiter, a lander, and a rover all together. All three robots reached Mars’ orbit in February and have been circling the planet since then. The lander and rover are poised to descend to its surface sometime in May.

If that mission succeeds, China will become the second country to successfully land on Mars.

Read the original article on Business Insider