China's Tiangong-1 Has Re-Entered The Atmosphere

Artist's impression of Tiangong-1. CMSE

Chinese space station Tiangong-1 has re-entered the atmosphere on April 2 at 12.16am, GMT, over the Pacific Ocean, in the vicinity of Tahiti. Splashdown is estimated at 24.89ºS, 150.56º W. Even if the station had come down over land, the chances of hitting anyone would have been very small, but the remote location means there are unlikely to even have been boats in the vicinity.

The Tiangong-1, which is Chinese for Celestial Palace-1, was the first prototype space station built by the Chinese space agency. It was launched in 2011 and was supposed to be de-orbited in 2013, but its mission was extended by two years. The plan was for Tiangong-1 to remain in orbit to collect more data about the longevity of the materials that make up the station and, once that was complete, to be commanded to gradually re-enter. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.

Chinese representatives at the UN informed the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space that the space station had ceased functions in March 2016. Amateur satellite trackers suspected that China had lost control of its space station, which the Chinese government admitted to in September of that year. Tiangong-1 was already on a decaying orbit, slowly coming down, but still moving at the orbital speed of 28,000 kilometers (17,400 miles) per hour.

The station was an impressive object, but it wasn’t a record breaker in terms of objects that have fallen down to Earth. Bigger pieces of space junk have fallen over our heads and the second stage of the Zenit rocket, which was just as heavy as Tiangong-1, burned in the atmosphere over Peru earlier this year. It wasn’t a Chinese space station, so it wasn’t as news grabbing.

Tiangong-1 weighed about 8,500 kilograms (18,800 pounds) and measured about 10.4 by 3.4 meters (34.1 by 11 feet). It was a prototype station that was always destined to be temporary, hence its size. As far as space stations go, it was quite minute. It had a habitable experimental module of about 15 cubic meters (530 cubic feet), which is the size of a small office. It had two sleep stations and exercise gear. There were no toilets or cooking facilities on board, so the astronauts used the ones on the Shenzhou module that they used to get to the space station.

The station was visited by three missions, the first one uncrewed and the following ones with a crew on board. The two crewed missions are notable for including China’s first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.

The remote location means we are likely not to have any video of Tiangong-1's fiery end, so this infrared image may be the last ever taken.

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