A drop in the Pacific Ocean: Tiangong-1

 

Earlier this month on 1 April, China’s first school bus-sized space station, Tiangong-1 burned up in the earth’s atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean at 8:16 p.m. EDT (0016 GMT on 2 April). It fell right in the middle of the window as predicted by a number of organizations, including the China National Space Administration, the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee and the U.S. based analysis group Aerospace Corp. 

An insight to Tiangong-1

Tiangong-1, meaning Heavenly Palace-1 in Chinese was China’s first prototype space station. It was launched unmanned aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket on 29 September 2011. It was conceived as the first operational component of the Tiangong program that aims to place a larger modular space station into the orbit by 2023. It orbited the Earth from September 2011 to April 2018 and served both as a manned laboratory and an as experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. Tiangong-1 was initially planned to be deorbited in 2013 and to be replaced by the larger Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 modules, but it orbited until 2 April 2018.  After delays in the launch of Tiangong-2, the Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 were subsequently merged and Tiangong-3 was launched in 2016. After it served for an extended lifespan of two years, the China Manned Space Engineering Office on 21 March 2016, announced the end of the Tiangong-1’s service. In 2017 update to the United Nations, China informed had Tiangong-1 had ceased operating, and it was assumed that the nation lost control or communication with its space station.

During its two-year operational lifetime, Tiangong-1 was visited by a series of Shenzhou spacecraft. First of these, the unmanned Shenzhou 8, successfully docked itself in November 2011 followed by manned Shenzhou 9 mission in June 2012 and Shenzhou 10 in June 2013. The manned missions to Tiangong-1 were notable for having China’s first ever female astronauts- Liu Yang and Wang Yaping. 

The 8.5 tonnes prototype space station Tiangong-1 was not in use since 2016 and was always designed to be brought back to Earth, but its unplanned descent created concerns over the location of its fall. Its uncertain path was also conceived as a threat to other live satellites. Though the space station harmlessly plunged into the Pacific Ocean, the end of Tiangong-1 served as an alarm for the increasing amount space debris that has been accumulating in the space over the years and also underlines the need of cleaning them.