All’s well that ends well
After spending around seven years in space, China’s Tiangong-1 space station fell back into the earth’s atmosphere on Monday morning, mostly burning up over the South Pacific and landing on no one’s head.
Launched in 2011, the 8.5-tonne Tiangong-1 was China’s first space laboratory and prototype space station. Over the original planned operational time of two years, the craft underwent three dockings, hosted two manned missions, and experienced one orbital maintenance mission.
Following that time, the space lab, whose name translates to “Celestial Palace,” was put into sleep mode, where it remained in orbit for the last four years or so.
But, back in 2016, the China National Space Administration was forced to admit that the Tiangong-1 was falling back to earth and, because of some unexplained issue, the agency had no control over where or when the craft would crash land.
Over the past six months, many an article has been written about when and where the prototype space station would finally reenter earth’s atmosphere and what kind of damage it would do.
Experts predicted that some, rather large, space station chunks would probably make it all the way to the earth’s surface, but, of course, were most likely to end up in the ocean. The Aerospace Corporation put your chances of getting struck by a flaming piece of Tiangong-1 debris at less than 1-in-1 trillion, while the European Space Agency described the probability of someone getting hit as 10 million times smaller than the yearly chance that you’ll be hit by lightning.
On Monday morning, the Tiangong-1 finally re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at around 8:15 am (CST) and broke up over the South Pacific, China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) said. It’s not clear how much of the craft managed to make it all the way to the ocean water, however, the crash is unlikely to have caused any damage or injury, unless you are a fish.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who had been closely following Tiangong-1’s descent put the craft’s final resting place at an area northwest of Tahiti.
In an interesting sidenote, China has not been pleased with how Western media has been covering this whole affair, taking umbrage at depictions of the Tiangong-1 hurtling back to earth like a colossal “out-of-control fireball.”
“The Chinese insist that it is controlled. They’re very, very unhappy when you use this term ‘uncontrolled,’” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, told Space.com, explaining that China maintains that it can provide location updates about the space lab’s position at any time.
But, as Cheng points out, other spacefaring nations would only consider a re-entry “controlled” if it was performed under the guidance of a spacecraft’s handlers.
“We should be diplomatically, and in the space-policy world, pushing China to accept a definition of ‘control’ that is comparable to that of the rest of the rules-based world. You don’t get your own definition,” Cheng said.
In an editorial published earlier today, China’s nationalist tabloid the Global Times cites a Chinese expert as saying that the Tiangong-1 reentered the earth’s atmosphere not because it was out of control, but because it ran out of fuel.
The editorial portrays global coverage on the Tiangong-1’s fall as an attempt by Western countries to undermine China’s blossoming space program.
“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 said.