China says space station to re-enter atmosphere over South Atlantic on Monday

Aaron Brown
April 3, 2018

Tiangong-1, which translates as "Heavenly Palace 1", was launched into orbit on September 29, 2011, and was used to carry out docking and orbit experiments as part of China's ambitious space programme, which aims to build a permanent station by the early 2020s.

A list of the most massive human-made space objects that have plunged back to Earth compiled by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who tracks space activities, registered Tiangong 1 as the 49th biggest spacecraft to re-enter uncontrolled.

As Chinese space lab Tiangong-1 re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on Monday, burning up in the skies over the central region of the South Pacific, residents of the country bid the spacecraft a final farewell.

"It's been tumbling and spinning for a while, which means that when it really starts to come down it's less predictable about what happens to it", Tucker said.

The literal fall of Tiangong-1 has always been tracked and anticipated, first noticed by an amateur satellite tracker in 2016, months before the Chinese government acknowledged that their space lab would come crashing back down from its uncontrolled orbit. Its last crew departed in 2013 and contact with it was cut in 2016. "It helped us accumulate precious knowledge for work on the space station", Geng said.

The eight-tonne space lab, which measured about the size of a school bus, crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean about 8.15am Hong Kong time (00.15 GMT), ending weeks of uncertainty as to where it would end up.

Roger Thompson, senior engineering specialist with the Aerospace Corporation in Virginia, said modeling of Tiangong 1's re-entry by monitors in the US had been highly accurate, leaving him feeling "great" about their predictions.

The lack of control was not unusual given that about 15 percent of satellites re-enter the atmosphere prior to the end of their useful lives, he said.

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The difficulties seemed to wrong-foot Chinese space scientists - just moments before announcing that the craft would come down over the Pacific, they had said it would make its re-entry over Sao Paulo and head towards the Atlantic Ocean.

The Tiangong-1 was shot into orbit in September 2011.

The chance of being hit by the debris was considered less than one in a trillion, and on average, one inert satellite drops into our atmosphere and burns up every week. Some debris fell in sparsely populated Western Australia, causing no problems except for a $400 fine for littering.

Chinese engineers lost control of Tiangong 1's orbit in 2016.

Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China is striving to open a space station circling our planet.

The uncontrolled re-entry of the space lab has been a blot on China's space program, as it goes against worldwide best practice.

"The important role of Tiangong-1 would go down in China's space history".

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