Spaceflight Insider

Tiangong-1 space laboratory to fall to Earth in about 2-3 weeks

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

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

New calculations made by Aerospace Corporation and the European Space Agency (ESA) indicate that China’s disabled Tiangong-1 space laboratory – could be coming back to Earth – soon.

Estimates by the two organizations suggest that the space station could crash into Earth between March 28 and April 11.

Beijing lost control over Tiangong-1 on March 16, 2016, most likely due to a dysfunctional battery charger. Since then, the module has been unable to recharge its batteries from its two solar arrays. Chinese officials 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 is controlled or not.

Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit corporation that provides technical guidance and advice on all aspects of space missions, has recently updated its report regarding Tiangong-1’s atmospheric re-entry. The document now states that the spacecraft will fall to Earth somewhere between March 28 and April 11.

Furthermore, ESA’s Space Debris Office provided similar estimates, even narrowing the predicted re-entry window. According to new calculations posted on March 15, Tiangong-1 will crash into the planet between March 30 and April 6. However, the office noted that these dates are highly variable, for instance due to the variations of the atmosphere.

These two predictions further helped to confirm that the space laboratory could re-enter the atmosphere somewhere between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitudes. 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 (which means “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese) is China’s first space laboratory. With a mass of an estimated 8.5 metric tons, Tiangong-1 measures some 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of approximately 11 feet (3.4 meters). The station was launched in September of 2011. Nine months later, in June, 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.

Besides being used as a laboratory for space research, Tiangong-1 also served as an experimental platform from which China could demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. The orbiting laboratory was also used as a stepping stone to pave the way for the nation’s future space stations, the next of which the country plans to complete in 2022.





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 might be a stupid question because I am probably a stupid person but why cant we preemptively shoot the damn thing with a missile before reentry to give the atmosphere a head start? Hit the station with a small detonation designed to break the station into two or three pieces, but have minimal dibree polution sent out threatening other satalites.

If it were to explode,some fragments would inevitably end in higher orbits. The outcome would be unpredictable if it were to be hit by an anti-sat weapon. The best approach is to let it re-enter in one piece. It’s not fitted with a heat shield so it will burn up. The chances of it re-entering over a populated area are pretty slim anyway.

Laurence Klein

That’s a good question, and you’ve given good reasons for that approach. Perhaps your approach would work well. China might be concerned that any attempt to target this craft implies that China created a hazard that has to be dealt with. As some much larger spacecraft, particularly Mir and Skylab, re-entered safely, China might feel confident that it’s best for hem to not take action, and just let the spacecraft re-enter.

@Jon Hansen
If you “shoot” it down and someone is hurt you are liable. If it comes down then it’s considered an act of God and you aren’t liable.

Why not dock with it and put it back on line

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