Spaceflight Insider

China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory to fall to Earth in 2017

Artist's impression of the Tiangong-1 space laboratory in orbit.

An artist’s impression of the Tiangong-1 space laboratory in orbit. Image Credit: CMSA

China’s first space laboratory, Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace” in Chinese), is expected to re-enter the atmosphere in the second half of 2017, according to Chinese officials. While most parts of the spacecraft will burn up, there are worries some pieces may hit the ground.

Last week, Wu Ping, the deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering (CSME) office, revealed Tiangong-1 is currently intact and orbiting at an average altitude of 230 miles (370 kilometers). The first indication that something was wrong with the small space station came in March this year when the CSME reported it started to descend gradually and would eventually fall back to Earth.

Although at this time it is difficult to estimate exactly when or where Tiangong-1 will re-enter the atmosphere, Ping insists the spacecraft’s demise shouldn’t cause any problems on the ground.

Artist's rendering of Shenzhou 9 spacecraft docking with Tiangong-1 space laboratory.

An artist’s rendering of Shenzhou 9 docking with Tiangong-1. Image Credit: Keith McNeill / Space Models Photography

“Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling,” Ping said. She added it is unlikely this re-entry will affect aviation activities or cause damage to the ground.

However, some experts are convinced that some of the space laboratory’s parts, especially rocket engines will not burn up completely and could cause minor damages on the ground.

“There will be lumps of about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you. There’s a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone’s car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone’s roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage,” Jonathan McDowell, Harvard astrophysicist and space industry enthusiast, told The Guardian.

China will now continue to monitor Tiangong-1 closely and will issue early warnings for possible collisions with satellites and other space objects, if necessary. The country intends to release a forecast of the space lab’s descent and report it internationally when more information on the spacecraft’s status is available.

Ping noted China has always valued the management of space debris, conducting research and tests on space debris mitigation and cleaning.

With a mass of about 8.5 metric tons, Tiangong-1 measures some 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of 11 feet (3.4 meters). The laboratory was launched in September of 2011. Nine months later, in June 2012, three Chinese astronauts – sometimes called taikonauts – docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to the station for the first time.

Tiangong-1 was visited again in June 2013 when the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft transported another trio of taikonauts. In addition to scientific experiments, the crew taught a physics lesson to Chinese students via live television while on board the lab.

Besides being used as a laboratory for research in space, Tiangong-1 also served as an experimental module to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. After proving these techniques, the Chinese no longer needed the station and it remained unoccupied after the Shenzhou-10 crew left the station in June 2013.

On Sept. 15, 2016, China launched its second space laboratory into space. Designated Tiangong-2, it is similar in size to its predecessor. This mission is an important step for China toward building its own permanent space station as it will enable the testing of key technologies before sending a larger module into orbit.

In October 2016, Tiangong-2 will be visited by the crewed Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. The arriving crew will enter the module to live there and carry out experiments. Additionally, in April 2017, the new Tianzhou-1 cargo ship is planned to dock with the laboratory and test autonomous fuel transfer.

China’s future multi-module space station is expected to be built sometime between 2018 and 2022. The first piece of the orbital outpost, called Tiangong-3, will include a laboratory with integrated modular racks for storing scientific equipment. It will also have five docking ports and a robotic arm.



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

China should just do us all a favor and send up a rocket to attach to their space station and send it out to deep space. China acts like they are capable of great things, but then one of their “great” things starts falling back to earth. This is their mess, and I think that they should pay for all collateral damages caused by their failure.

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