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Tiangong-1 re-enters atmosphere, burns up over South Pacific

China's Tiangong-1 space station is predicted to fall back to Earth within the coming weeks. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s rendering of China’s Tiangong-1 space station. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory is now in the history books after it burned up almost entirely on re-entry above the southern Pacific Ocean. While most parts of the defunct station are believed to have burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere, some pieces may have survived and plummeted into the water.

Tiangong-1’s fall to Earth was confirmed by the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which stated the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere around 8:16 p.m. EDT April 1 (00:16 GMT April 2), 2018.

The final and predicted re-entry locations as calculated by The Aerospace Corporation. Image Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

The final and predicted re-entry locations as calculated by The Aerospace Corporation. Click to enlarge. Image Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

“The [Joint Force Space Component Command] used the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm Tiangong-1’s re-entry, and to refine its prediction and ultimately provide more fidelity as the re-entry time approached,” U.S. Air Force wrote on its website.

Later on, China officially confirmed the time of re-entry through its space agency.

“Tiangong-1 reentered the atmosphere at about 8:15 a.m. April 2, Beijing time,” the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) wrote on its website. “The re-entry falling area [was] located in the central region of South Pacific. Most of the devices were ablated during the re-entry process,”

The China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) also confirmed the re-entry and its exact time. The office said Tiangong-1 was “mostly burnt up in the atmosphere.”

Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace,” was China’s first space laboratory. The single-module station measured some 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and had a diameter of approximately 11 feet (3.4 meters). The spacecraft was launched in September of 2011.

In June of 2012, three Chinese taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to the station for the first time. The module was visited again in June 2013 when the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft transported another trio of taikonauts.

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. The laboratory helped paved the way for China’s future space station, which the country plans to complete in 2022. Along with its predecessor, Tiangong-2 (launched in September 2016), it tested technologies crucial for the planned modular orbital outpost.

“Tiangong-1 will go down in China’s space history. It helped us accumulate precious knowledge for work on the space station,” said Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer at the Astronaut Center of China, in a report by Xinhua, the Chinese state-run press agency.

Control over Tiangong-1 was lost on March 16, 2016. It is assumed that the space station ceased functioning due to a dysfunctional battery charger.

 

 

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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.

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