Space lab re-en­try ex­pected on Mon­day

Craft could pro­duce ‘splen­did meteor shower’ as it burns up in at­mos­phere

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Top News - By ZHANG ZHIHAO zhangzhi­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Tian­gong I, China’s first space lab, will re-en­ter Earth’s at­mos­phere on Mon­day, the na­tional space agency said on Sun­day.

As of Sun­day, the space sta­tion was or­bit­ing about 167 kilo­me­ters above Earth, ac­cord­ing to the China Manned Space Agency. The agency’s lat­est es­ti­mate said it will re-en­ter the at­mos­phere on Mon­day, though it did not spec­ify a time.

Most of the sta­tion will burn up dur­ing re-en­try, and any de­bris will most likely fall into the ocean and not af­fect avi­a­tion or hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties on the ground, ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle pub­lished on the agency’s WeChat — so­cial me­dia — ac­count on Wed­nes­day.

Such fall­ing space­craft do “not vi­o­lently crash into Earth, like in sci-fi movies, but turn into a splen­did meteor shower and move across the beau­ti­ful starry sky as they race to­ward Earth”, the agency said in the ar­ti­cle.

South Korea’s Na­tional Space Si­t­u­a­tional Aware­ness Or­ga­ni­za­tion said on Sun­day that the 10.4-me­ter-long Chi­nese space sta­tion is ex­pected to re-en­ter the at­mos­phere some time be­tween 4:12 am and 12:12 pm Bei­jing time on Mon­day.

De­bris from the 8-met­ric­ton space lab could land any­where be­tween the lat­i­tudes of 43 de­grees north and 43 de­grees south — a vast belt of area cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from New Zealand to the Amer­i­can Mid­west, ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Space Agency.

But it is still ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to ac­cu­rately pre­dict where, if any­where, the craft would come down due to its shal­low fall­ing an­gle, in­ter­fer­ence from at­mos­phere, and a po­ten­tial max­i­mum speed of around 27,000 kilo­me­ters per hour, the Euro­pean agency added.

On Fri­day, Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Lu Kang re­as­sured re­porters in a news brief­ing that China has been “highly re­spon­si­ble” and trans­par­ent in its han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion.

“China pays high at­ten­tion to the sta­tion’s re-en­try, and has been con­stantly up­dat­ing the United Na­tion Of­fice for Outer Space Af­fairs with new in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “If there is a need, we will promptly be in touch with the coun­tries con­cerned.”

About 13,000 to 15,000 met­ric tons of space hard­ware has come down since space flight be­gan in the 1960s, and not a sin­gle ca­su­alty has been re­ported, ac­cord­ing to space agen­cies from China and Europe.

The re-en­try process is typ­i­cally di­vided into three phases. Dur­ing the first phase, which hap­pens around 100 km above ground, the drag from the at­mos­phere tears off so­lar ar­rays, an­ten­nas, and other ex­ter­nal parts off a space­craft, the Chi­nese space agency said.

The next phase starts at an al­ti­tude of about 80 km, where the main struc­ture of the space­craft dis­in­te­grates as pres­sure, fric­tion, and heat in­creases. The frag­ments will keep burn­ing, shed­ding most of their mass and vol­ume in the process.

Only a small amount of the de­bris would reach the ground and mostly likely would fall into the oceans, which cover more than 70 per­cent of Earth’s sur­face.

Tian­gong I, also known as “Heav­enly Palace”, was launched on Sept 29, 2011, and has been a key part of China’s plan to de­velop its own manned space sta­tion sim­i­lar to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion by 2023.

It has com­pleted six space ren­dezvous and dock­ing mis­sions with three vis­it­ing space­craft. The first visit was by the un­manned Shen­zhou VIII space­craft in Novem­ber 2011, as part of China’s first space dock­ing mis­sion.

The sec­ond and third mis­sions were both manned — Shen­zhou IX in June 2012 and Shen­zhou X in June 2013. Both of those mis­sions had three as­tro­nauts and lasted about two weeks, dur­ing which as­tro­nauts tested the sta­tion’s var­i­ous sys­tems and liv­ing con­di­tions.

Huang Weifen, a re­searcher at the As­tro­naut Cen­ter of China, said Tian­gong I has con­trib­uted greatly to China’s space pro­grams by pro­vid­ing valu­able data on se­cu­rity, work­ing, and liv­ing con­di­tions for fu­ture as­tro­nauts.

“What goes up must come down,” she said. “But the Chi­nese space dream will keep mov­ing for­ward.”

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