Welcome Home, Tiangong-1: China's Wayward Space Lab Returns

Ignacio Smith
April 4, 2018

In terms of space stations, China's Tiangong-1 was considered relatively small weighing in at 8.5 tons.

Just like most experts predicted, it caused absolutely zero damage to anything but itself, as the remainder of Tiangong-1 that didn't burn up in the atmosphere finally splashed down into the South Pacific this weekend, harmless sinking into the ocean. Analysis from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center showed it had mostly burned up. But the landing site in the southern Pacific is "kind of where you hope it would land".

Tiangong-1, translated to "Heavenly Palace 1" or "Celestial Palace 1", was China's first prototype space station. Its last team withdrew in 2013 and contact with it was cut in 2016.

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The nation will start building that space station around 2020, according to the government's plan.

Tiangong-1 was lofted on September 29, 2011, and had a projected two-year lifespan.

"We believe it was an uncontrolled entry", Thompson said, adding that the corporation's own estimate had been just 15 minutes behind the time announced by China.

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The European Space Agency (ESA) has said ground controllers were no longer able to command Tiangong-1 to fire its on-board engines, which could have been used to determine where it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The Chinese space agency said it should happen during the course of today Beijing time.

The successful rendezvous and docking between the target orbiter Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft marked a significant breakthrough in China's space technology, making China the third country in the world, after the United States and Russian Federation, to master the technique.

In the months leading up to its reentry, experts stressed that the chances of being hit and injured by the space station's falling debris were extremely slim. Luckily the SkyLab only resulted in a $400 fine for the U.S.as debris littered the Australian city of Perth. The spacelab had hosted Chinese astronauts on several occasions when they performed experiments and even taught a class that was broadcast into schools across the country.

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This was China's first manned rendezvous and docking mission. If anyone gets hit by debris, it's also China's problem. Indeed, the space station's case highlights the fact that scientists still don't have the necessary technology or research to wrangle the significant number of variables that factor into tracking and modeling such situations.

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