Focus on tiangong-1's return
Towards the latter days of March and the first days of april, the 'out-of-control' Chinese space station finally crash back to earth
Miss the space station burning up in Earth's atmosphere? We've got you covered
T“it is the biggest man-made object to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere in over a decade”
he Chinese space station Tiangong-1 has been without contact since March 2016, but made a resurgent appearance over the easter weekend when it broke up over the Pacific ocean. The 10.4-metre-long (34foot) module was China’s first prototype space station of the Tiangong program, translated as ‘heavenly Palace’ or ‘Celestial Palace’, when it was launched in September 2011. This marked the first step in China creating a third-generation space station, much like Mir and the international Space Station, but now it is the biggest man-made object to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere in over a decade.
The aim of Tiangong-1 was to test and improve upon the techniques involved in the orbital rendezvous and docking on board a space station. ever since its launch, the orbit of Tiangong-1 has slowly decayed due to the ever-so-faint
atmospheric drag, even at high altitudes of 300 or 400 kilometres (186 to 249 miles). in fact, several ‘re-boost manoeuvres’ were undergone to maintain an altitude between 330 and 390 kilometres (205 and 242 miles).
it was known from the start that this prototype would reach its demise with a controlled re-entry back to earth. The ground controllers would have told the engines to fire, directing the burning spacecraft towards a huge, unpopulated area in the South Pacific ocean. unfortunately not everything goes to plan, and in March 2016 it was announced that Tiangong-1 had lost all functions, but they confirmed it still retained its structural integrity. Since then, scientists have been trying to constrain the re-entry dates and regions for this 8.5-tonne (18,753 pound) hunk of metal.
in mid-March 2018, the european Space agency’s Space Debris office (eSoC) announced that the currently unmanned Tiangong-1 would most likely grace us with its presence between 30 March and 2 april 2018. however, eSoC emphasised that this estimated window is “highly variable”. not only that, but the re-entry would take place between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south. The probability of an impact at the time were higher in places such as northern China, the Middle east, central italy, northern Spain and the northern states of the united
States, new Zealand, Tasmania and parts of South america and southern africa. although this seems like a wide range of ‘targets’, the chances of being hit by a piece of Tiangong-1 are about “10 milliontimes smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning” as stated by eSoC.
The subject of space debris re-entry, and it potentially being harmful for humans, is a topic that is being widely discussed throughout the astronomical community. eSa is currently leading the way in terms of removing space debris, as they remain committed to monitoring, tracking and removing space debris using a variety of techniques and technologies. it has proven to be problematic in the past, for example on the 10 february 2009, the operational iridium-33 satellite collided with the out-of-service Kosmos-2251 satellite at 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) per second. The resulting debris from this first-ever satellite collision caused a medley of fragments to scatter off to reaches beyond our control.
Tiangong-1 was captured in this radar image just re-entered the atmosphere,
released by the fraunhofer institute
an artist's impression of Tiangong-3, which was originally planned to launch in
2015. The space station was cancelled