Space lab burns up – mostly – over South Pacific, China says
Tiangong 1, China’s first space station, had been in orbit since 2011 but scientists lost contact with it in 2016.
A defunct Chinese space lab came to a fiery end over the South Pacific in the early hours of Monday morning.
The 8.5-tonne Tiangong 1 space station mostly burned up over the vast ocean after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at around 1.15am.
Along with scientists at China’s space agency, teams from around the world closely monitored the lab’s final minutes as it screamed down from the heavens at 16,000 miles per hour.
Here’s how our final #Tiangong1 prediction stacks up against the actual reentry data. We had an error of 14 minutes, which was well within our window of +/- 1.7 hours. Thanks for following along with us this past week. pic.twitter.com/t5kDEJa0jM— TheAerospaceCorp (@AerospaceCorp) April 2, 2018
Experts said the likelihood of debris striking anyone on the ground was “extremely small”, however precisely where the torched remains would land was unknown.
Estimates of when and where the re-entry would begin were also varied.
The European Space Agency said the Tiangong space lab entered the atmosphere “not too far from the uninhabited area that is typically used for controlled re-entries”.
US air force confirms #Tiangong1 reentry this morning at ~02:16 CEST over the Pacific - not too far from the uninhabited area that is typically used for controlled reentries. This time well within ESA's final forecast windows https://t.co/OzZLoYnlc4— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) April 2, 2018
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said that variations in the atmosphere made it tricky to predict where and when it would re-enter and burn up.
“As this thing is flying at 26,000 kilometres an hour around the Earth, it’s skimming the atmosphere,” he told the BBC.
“There is a headwind that’s blowing it around and you don’t know one day to the next how much wind there is going to be.”
#Tiangong1 monitoring almost complete - ESA's #spacedebris team forecasting reentry during a window of about four hours centred on 01:07 UTC (03:07 CEST) on 2 April— ESA (@esa) April 1, 2018
Summary & FAQ: https://t.co/pvPdVBiPp4 pic.twitter.com/FWYplRnXXZ
With accommodation for two astronauts, China’s first space station blasted into orbit aboard a Long March rocket in 2011.
Used for practising docking manoeuvres and techniques, the last crew left Tiangong 1 – which translates as Celestial Palace 1 – in 2013.
China’s space agency lost contact with the space station in 2016, leaving it gradually falling to Earth on an uncontrolled “decaying orbit”.
The China Manned Space Engineering Office said that most of the 34ft-long, 11ft-wide space station’s components were “ablated” during re-entry.
The agency said: “Through monitoring and analysis by Beijing Aerospace Control Centre and related agencies, Tiangong 1 re-entered the atmosphere at about 8.15am on April 2 Beijing time (1.15am GMT).
“The re-entry falling area is located in the central region of the South Pacific. Most of the devices were ablated during the re-entry process.”
UPDATE: #JFSCC confirmed #Tiangong1 reentered the atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean at ~5:16 p.m. (PST) April 1. For details see https://t.co/OzZXgaEX0W @US_Stratcom @usairforce @AFSpaceCC @30thSpaceWing @PeteAFB @SpaceTrackOrg pic.twitter.com/KVljDALqzi— 18 SPCS (@18SPCS) April 2, 2018
The US Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) also confirmed Tiangong 1 had re-entered the atmosphere over the South Pacific after co-ordinating with counterparts in the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia.
From the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Major General Stephen Whiting said in a statement: “The JFSCC works alongside government, industry and international partners to track and report re-entries … because the space domain is vital to our shared international security interest.
“One of our missions, which we remain focused on, is to monitor space and the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that congest it, while at the same time working with allies and partners to enhance spaceflight safety and increase transparency in the space domain.”