Chinese Space Station Tiangong-1 Crashes to Earth


Tiangong-1, China’s space station, fell to Earth on April 1, 2018 at 8:16 p.m. EDT. The space station launched on September 29, 2011 and settled into an orbit approximately 350 km or 217 miles above Earth. Tiangong-1 is 34' long and 11' wide. It weighs 8.5 metric tons and has a habitable internal volume of 530 cubic feet.

The space station has two components – an experimental module that accommodated scientific work and astronauts and a resource module that contains the propulsion systems and solar-power of the space lab. The experimental module contains some exercise gear and two beds, but doesn’t have a kitchen or bathroom. Tiangong-1 was launched to test the rendezvous and docking technologies that China will require to build a genuine space station in Earth orbit.

The space station was designed to work for only two years and the Shenzhou-10 visit, a crewed mission in June 2013, served as the end of Tiangong-1’s operational life. It was soon put into sleep mode. According to Chinese officials, they planned to de-orbit the spacecraft in a controlled manner using its thrusters to direct Tiangong-1 into Earth's atmosphere. In March 2016, China declared that the space station was no longer sending data to its handlers. Tiangong-1’s functions have been deactivated, making a controlled re-entry impossible. The space station would naturally fall back to Earth due to atmospheric drag.

Tiangong-1 will not be the first space station to fall uncontrolled. In February 1991, the Salyut 7 orbital station of Soviet Union fell while it was connected to another space lab called Cosmos 1686. No one was aboard the Salyut-Cosmos 1686 complex when it hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

Where Will the Spacecraft Crash?

Tiangong-1 will fall somewhere between 43⁰ north latitude and 43⁰ south. These calculations are based on the orbital details of the spacecraft. While most of the space station will burn up in Earth's atmosphere, some of its more resilient parts will most likely survive re-entry. There is no need to worry because these flaming pieces will most likely splash down in the ocean. According to a FAQ released by The Aerospace Corporation, the possibility that a piece of the spacecraft will hit you is less than one in one trillion. In case you do encounter a piece of spacecraft debris, it is best that you don’t inhale any fumes or pick it up as the chunk might be made of toxic material.