Heads up people, a Chinese space station is about to crash back home to Earth.
On Friday 19 July, Tiangong-2 is set to burn up during a controlled re-entry into the atmosphere with a smattering of debris expected to fall in the South Pacific Ocean, somewhere between New Zealand and Chile, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Tiangong-2, which translates as “heavenly palace” or “celestial vessel,” is a 10.4-meter-long (34 feet) crewed space lab – similar to but much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) – with a wingspan of about 18.4 meters (60 feet) when its solar panels are folded. Shortly after it was launched in September 2016, it was followed by two taikonauts who lived there for 30 days, conducting numerous experiments on the physiological effects of weightlessness, gamma-ray bursts, and “cold” atomic clocks in space.
Its spectacular demise marks the end of Tiangong-2’s short but sweet 3-year mission in Earth orbit. While that may not seem like a long mission for a space station, Tiangong-2 was only ever meant to serve as a temporary prototype to test out technology for China's large modular space station that will, hopefully, head for the skies in 2022. The space station is set to rival the ISS and support China's long-term goals for space exploration, including crewed missions to the Moon and Mars.
“Preparations for the controlled re-entry into atmosphere of Tiangong-2 are proceeding steadily as planned,” the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the country’s main space contractor in charge of the mission, said last week. “China will timely report the information about the spacecraft after it re-enters the atmosphere to fulfill its international obligations.”
It will fire up its thrusters and aim for the Pacific, where it will burn up as it enters the atmosphere and any surviving parts will likely land in the ocean.
In 1979, NASA's Skylab, its own precursor to the ISS, made a dramatic crash back to Earth. Surrounded by media hype of the space station’s re-entry, the San Francisco Examiner offered a $10,000 prize to whoever could deliver a piece of debris to their offices within 72 hours. Since the space station was heading towards the southern Indian Ocean, the newspaper believed the debris wouldn't touch down anywhere near land.
They thought wrong, however. Seventen-year-old Stan Thornton found 24 pieces of charred metal from the craft around the small town of Esperance, Western Australia. He hopped on a plane to San Fransico and claimed his prize.
While Tiangong-2’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere is completely planned, its predecessor was not so fortunate. In April 2018, Tiangong-1 crashed into Earth’s atmosphere in an uncontrolled re-entry having lost contact with ground control in 2016. Beijing actually denied the space station was in difficulty for a long time after Western astronomers started to notice something was up with its orbit. Luckily, the space lab burned up in the atmosphere over the Pacific, shooting a very small amount of debris into an extremely remote part of the sea near Tahiti.
By the end of this weekend, Tiangong-2 will share a similar fate to its elder sibling, albeit in a much more managed fashion.
"This is actually a good thing btw," Elon Musk tweeted in response to news of Tiangong-2's re-entry. "China is making amazing progress in space, rapidly iterating on rocket & space station technology. Great respect."
So long, Tiangong-2. It’s been a pleasure.