Chinese space station plunges into the sea

April 3rd, 2018, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

China’s first prototype space station.

Tiangong-1, China’s first prototype space station, re-entered the earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific Ocean at 02h16 (CAT) on 2 April 2018 and its remains plunged into the sea somewhere North West of Tahiti.

On 21 March 2016 the China Manned Space Engineering Office announced that Tiangong-1 had officially ended its service. The telemetry link had been lost which meant that ground control could no longer activate the booster engines to keep the space station in orbit.

A few months later, amateur space enthusiasts reported that the space station was on a re-entry path. In September 2016 after conceding they had lost control over the station, officials speculated that the station would re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere late in 2017. Over the past few weeks amateur space watchers actively followed the re-entry of Tiangong-1 into the earth’s atmosphere and speculated that a large chunk of the over 550 ton station would hit somewhere in mid USA. South African space watchers reportedly spotted the decaying space station when it orbited over Cape Town on 31 March 2018.

The US Strategic command Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) confirmed the demise of the space station. The organisation used the space surveillance network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm Tiangong’s re-entry and to refine its prediction and ultimately provide more fidelity as the re-entry time approached. The JFSCC provides operational information about re-entries and potential threats from space.

Tiangong-1, literally translated means “Heavenly Palace 1”, was China’s first space station. It orbited earth from September 2011 to April 2018, serving as both a manned laboratory and an experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities during its two years of active operational life.

It was launched unmanned by a Long March 2F/G rocket on 29 September 2011 and was the first operational component of the Tiangong programme, which aims to place a larger, modular station into orbit by 2023. Tiangong-1 was initially projected to be deorbited in 2013, to be replaced over the following decade by the larger Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 modules, but as of 31 March 2018 it was still aloft, although in a decaying orbit.

Tiangong-1 was visited by a series of Shenzhou spacecraft during its two-year operational lifetime. The manned missions to Tiangong-1 included China’s first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.