Tiangong-1 to fall to Earth over Easter weekend
According to new calculations, China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory will most likely fall to Earth over Easter weekend. More specifically, the European Space Agency and The Aerospace Corporation predict that the out-of-control spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere between March 29 and April 4.
ESA’s Space Debris Office, which coordinates the agency’s research relating to space debris, is constantly monitoring Tiangong-1’s gradual descent. The latest update published on the office’s website reveals that the space lab should crash to the planet between March 30 and April 2. However, ESA noted that their estimates are always subject to change, due to an array of variables (for instance the variations of the atmosphere).
Meanwhile, the latest calculations made by The Aerospace Corporation indicate a wider re-entry window. The non-profit corporation, which provides technical guidance and advice on all aspects of space missions, said that Tiangong-1 will crash to Earth between March 29 and April 4, most probably on April 1.
When it comes to the possible location of Tiangong-1’s re-entry, both updates further confirm that the spacecraft should fall 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, the likely locations that might be affected would be Chile, Argentina, Southern Australia or New Zealand.
Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace,” is China’s first space laboratory. With an estimated mass of 8.5 metric tons, the single-module station measures some 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of approximately 11 feet (3.4 meters). The spacecraft was launched in September of 2011.
In June 2012, three Chinese taikonauts—Chinese astronauts—docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to Tiangong-1 for the first time. The module was visited again in June 2013 when the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft transported another trio of taikonauts.
China launched a follow-up station called Tiangong-2 in September 2016, which was essentially a duplicate of the first spacecraft. A month later, the country sent two taikonauts aboard Shenzhou-11 to dock with and live aboard the outpost for about a month. It was later visited by the uncrewed Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft in April 2017 as a test of the new spacecraft.
By 2019, the country is expected to begin construction of its first multi-modular space station. Its core module, called Tianhe-1, will launch first followed by several science modules in the following years. It will be able to support multiple taikonauts for many months at a time and can be resupplied.
China lost control over Tiangong-1 on March 16, 2016. It is assumed that the space station ceased functioning due to a dysfunctional battery charger. Beijing officially announced in mid-September of 2016 that the spacecraft was heading for an imminent re-entry, but it did not reveal whether the station’s descent was controlled or not.
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.