Spaceflight Insider

Tiangong-1 space laboratory to crash to Earth between mid-March and mid-April, according to new ESA estimates


Artist’s rendition of Tiangong-1 in Earth orbit. Image Credit: CNSA

ESA’s Space Debris Office has issued a new updated forecast for the imminent atmospheric re-entry of China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory, which appears to have been floating in space out of control for almost two years.

The office, located at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, coordinates ESA’s research relating to space debris. As part of its activities, it also keeps a close eye on the upcoming re-entry of China’s Tiangong-1 space station, which is expected to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere soon, but there are fears that some of its components may strike the ground.

According to new calculations, Tiangong-1 should fall to Earth in about one and a half months, most likely between mid-March and mid-April. However, this estimates are always subject to change, due to an array of variables (for instance the variations of the atmosphere).

Current forecast altitude decay for Tiangong-1.

Current forecast altitude decay for Tiangong-1. Image Credit: ESA CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

“The current estimated window is about March 19 to about April 14; this is highly variable,” the Space Debris Office informs.

The update issued on Jan. 29 confirmed that the spacecraft should re-enter somewhere between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitudes.

The Office noted that areas outside of these latitudes can be excluded. This large swath of Earth includes Northern parts of the U.S., as well as countries such as Spain, Italy, Turkey, China, North Korea or Japan in the Northern hemisphere. When it comes to the Southern hemisphere, most probably those locations which might be affected would be: Chile, Argentina, Southern Australia or New Zealand.

Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace” in Chinese) is China’s first space laboratory. With a mass of some 8.5 metric tons, it measures approximately 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of about 11 feet (3.4 meters). The laboratory was launched on Sept. 29, 2011. Nine months later, in June of 2012, three Chinese taikonauts 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.

Beijing lost control over Tiangong-1 on March 16, 2016. It is believed that the space station ceased functioning due to a dysfunctional battery charger. China finally confirmed in mid-September of 2016 that the spacecraft was heading for an imminent re-entry, but they still did not disclose whether the station’s descent was controlled or not.

More recently, China sent a note to the United Nations (UN) on Dec. 8, 2017, which informed the organization that the fall of the spacecraft is expected to take place some time between the first 10 days of February and the last 10 days of March of this year (2018). Beijing added that until Nov. 26, the laboratory had been orbiting at an average altitude of 184 miles (296 kilometers) and insisted that the Tiangong-1 station and the fuel it contains, will not harm those on the ground.





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

This will leave the ISS & Tiangong-2, along with Snoopy, the ascent stage of the Lunar Module from Apollo 10, which was sent into its own orbit around the sun after its crew returned to the Apollo 10 Command Module while it was still in orbit around the Moon, as the only spacecraft still in space that have had a crew onboard. There will also be the Soyuz vehicles serving the ISS. I hope that many other manned spacecraft will be up there in the coming years!

“I hope that many other manned spacecraft will be up there in the coming years!”

With the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy, your wish is guaranteed! I just read that Space-X apparently is not going to try to human-qualify the Heavy, at least for now, instead concentrating on the commercial heavy-lift market like for sending birds directly to GEO, but make no mistake: Falcon Heavy is THE biggest current rocket, and second ONLY to the Saturn-V for throw ability, and its original stated purpose was to send people and other heavy stuff to Mars. It WILL happen now, guaranteed!

Well, unless WW3 starts…

Does anyone know the size of the Gyroscope on this space station, talking about the Stainless steel flywheel ?

It weighs (on Earth) nearly 400kg.

There are 5 Gyros aboard! All are the same size and large. But unsure if that 400kg above is for each or all??? If each then this thing has something similar to multiple re-entry warheads! This needs to be reviewed soon…

Replying to my own reply -UGH- Pointed out by my associate that the details I reviewed to come up with the “5 Gyros” statement above were actually for the new station that that China plans to launch soon. Sorry for the confusion, but had to correct my error as soon as possible. I do not know how many gyros were aboard the station that is about to de-orbit.

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