China Launches Second Space Station

Tinagong-2 ("Heavenly Palace") is a forerunner to China's aim to have a crewed space station in orbit by 2022.

China launched its second space lab Thursday, official media said, as the country works towards setting up its own crewed space station by 2022.

The Tiangong-2 blasted off just after 10:00 pm (1400 GMT) "in a cloud of smoke" from the Gobi desert, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

State television CCTV broadcast images of the Long March-2F rocket's engines igniting in tandem before slowly lifting into the air and exiting the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, leaving a long trail of flames in its wake.

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The 8.6 tonne Tinagong-2 -- or Heavenly Palace-2 -- will initially orbit at a height of around 380 kilometers (240 miles) above Earth, Xinhua cited Wu Ping, deputy director of China's manned space engineering office, as saying.

It will then move slightly higher to allow the Shenzhou-11 mission to transport two astronauts to the facility, where they will stay for 30 days.

Once inside Tiangong-2, the two astronauts will carry out research projects related to in-orbit equipment repairs, aerospace medicine, space physics and biology, atomic space clocks and solar storm research.

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Zhou Jianping, chief engineer of China's manned space program, said Tiangong-2 also aimed to verify technology involved in the construction of the space station.

"It has the basic technological capacity of a space station," Zhou said.

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"Once the space lab mission comes to an end, China will start building our own space station," he said, adding this could start in as early as 2017.

In April 2017, China's first space cargo ship Tianzhou-1 will be sent towards the space lab, providing fuel and other supplies.

China is pouring billions into its space program and working to catch up with the US and Europe.

It hopes to have a crewed outpost by 2022.

China's first space lab, Tiangong-1, was launched in September 2011 and ended transmissions in March this year. It is expected to fall back to Earth in the second half of 2017.

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Beijing sees its military-run space program as symbolizing the country's progress and a marker of its rising global stature.

The nation's first lunar rover was launched in late 2013, and while it was beset by mechanical troubles it far outlived its expected lifespan, finally shutting down only last month.

But for the most part China has so far replicated activities that the US and Soviet Union pioneered decades ago.

As well as building a Chinese space station, it intends to eventually put one of its citizens on the surface of the moon.

It announced in April it aims to send a spacecraft "around 2020" to orbit Mars, land and deploy a rover to explore the surface.

GALLERY: 'Space Invader' Invades the Space Station

style="text-align: left;">A peculiar alien visitor has been found on the International Space Station -- but does it come in peace? Inspired by the popular 1970's video game "Space Invaders," a small red mosaic of one of the pixelated aliens has been recovered by European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and was photographed inside the orbiting outpost's Cupola, looking down on Earth. Continue browsing the gallery to see how far the "invasion" has spread...

style="text-align: left;">The art was created by the French urban artist "Invader," who's true identity is a closely guarded secret. However, his art is very well known. Inspired by 8-bit video games from the 1970's and 80's, Invader's distinctive artwork can be found in over 60 cities in 30 countries around the globe. And now, in an orbital first, Invader's work has been installed on the hatch of ESA's Columbia module, shown above.

style="text-align: left;">The artwork has been cropping up in the Italian astronaut's Twitter feed for the past few months. "Pssst, #SpaceInvader... These are the EMU suits for tomorrow's spacewalk. Spooky eh? #space2iss," she tweeted on Feb. 19.

style="text-align: left;">The small tile was actually delivered to the ISS in July 2014. Since then, "these space invaders have been spotted not only in the Space Station but also in ESA establishments all over Europe," writes ESA. "The first invaders were seen at ESA's astronaut center in Cologne, Germany. More mosaics have been seen at ESA's Redu Center in Belgium (pictured here), where satellites are controlled and tested as part of ESA's ground station network."

style="text-align: left;">This is a close-up of one of Invader's pieces of pixel art at ESA Redu in Belgium on Feb. 23, 2015.

style="text-align: left;">Another mosaic at ESA Redu in Belgium.

style="text-align: left;">Although the mission of the Space Invader isn't clear, its intent is hinted at. According to Cristoforetti, she hopes that the pixelated artforms that are popping up across ESA establishments will inspire primary school children "in using their imaginations for combining geometry, colors and mathematics into abstract minimalism."

style="text-align: left;">"Look what I found! Hey there, who are you?" tweeted Cristoforetti on Jan. 19 when she first encountered the Space Invader. Its first appearance on the ISS was above a space station control panel.

style="text-align: left;">The progress of this invasion can be followed on Twitter using the hashtags #space2iss and #SpaceInvader. So does this particular Space Invader come in peace? It seems so. It has appeared on the space station as a unique piece of urban art intended to inspire. That's one invasion we can all be excited by.

style="text-align: left;">Sources: Invader, Twitter, Flickr, ESA