Defunct Chinese space lab Tiangong-1 mostly destroyed during re-entry in South Pacific

38

The abandoned Tiangong-1 spacecraft returned to earth early on Monday, and was mostly destroyed on re-entry over the South Pacific, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said.

The uncontrolled earthbound plunge saw the space lab burn up above the vast ocean’s central region at 8.15 a.m. local time (0015 UTC), China’s Manned Space Engineering Office said

The agency had said ahead of Monday’s re-entry that the craft was expected to reach Earth’s atmosphere southwest of the tiny British South Atlantic island of Ascension. It later revised its estimate to off the coast of Brazil.

Authorities said the short-life space station would be traveling at around 26,000 kilometers per hour (16,000 miles per hour), it would mostly disintegrate, and therefore it was unlikely any large pieces would reach the ground.

Read more: China plots course for ‘dark side’ of the moon

The 10.4-metre-long (34.1-foot) Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace 1”, was launched in 2011 to carry out docking and orbit experiments as part of China’s ambitious space program, which aims to place a permanent station in orbit by 2023.

The space station completed six docking manoeuvers with Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft, and the first two Chinese taikonauts had also been on board, and even taught a class that was broadcast into schools across the country.

Mission extended then failure

The 8.5 ton spacecraft was originally planned to be decommissioned in 2013 but its mission was repeatedly extended.

Ground teams apparently lost contact with the space lab after it stopped working in March 2016. They were unable to remotely fire the engines in a maneuver necessary for a controlled re-entry.

Read more: China rocket launch brings space station plans closer

The European Space Agency (ESA) said that before the technical fault, China had planned a “controlled re-entry” at the end of the Tiangong-1’s operational life, which would have seen it burn up over the South Pacific.

Ahead of Monday’s re-entry, ESA’s expert Holger Krag said he expected roughly 1.5 to 3.5 tons of the space station to survive re-entry into the atmosphere. Only parts made of titanium and stainless steel would withstand the heat, he said.

According to Krag, it is “very hard to predict a precise location of re-entry,” before estimating that the craft could come down somewhere between America’s Midwest to New Zealand.

Slight danger to humans

He said the danger to humans was small, with the likelihood of being hit by space debris lower than “being hit by lightning twice in the same year.”

Chinese media meanwhile described the international media interest in the re-entry as overseas “envy” of China’s space industry.

“It’s normal for spacecraft to re-enter the atmosphere, yet  Tiangong-1 received so much attention partly because some Western countries are trying to hype and sling mud at China’s fast-growing aerospace industry,” the tabloid Global Times said.

But on Chinese social media, commenters criticized the government’s reluctance to own up to the situation.

“Can you or can’t you report that you’ve lost control of the situation?” one person wrote on Weibo.

“It’s not unusual that something this complicated would have a mishap.”

mm/aw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW’s editors send out a selection of the day’s hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.