China’s prototype space station, whose name translates as “Heavenly Palace 1,” crashed Earth’s atmosphere, April 1, breaking apart and burning up in the skies over the southern Pacific Ocean on April 2, according to the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC).
Tiangong-1 was about 34 feet long by 11 feet wide (10.4 by 3.4 meters), and it weighed more than 9 tons (8 metric tons). The space lab consisted of two main parts: an “experimental module” that housed visiting astronauts and a “resource module” that accommodated Tiangong-1’s solar-energy and propulsion systems.
The craft launched without anyone aboard on Sept. 29, 2011, to an orbit about 217 miles (350 kilometres) above Earth. That’s slightly lower than the orbit of the much larger International Space Station, whose average altitude is 250 miles (400 km). Tiangong-1’s main mission was to help China master the technologies required to assemble and operate a bonafide space station in Earth orbit.
On Nov. 2, 2011, the robotic Shenzhou-8 spacecraft visited Tiangong-1, executing China’s first-ever orbital docking. Another big milestone came in June 2012, when a crew of three space flyers linked their Shenzhou-9 vehicle to the heavenly palace and came aboard for a spell.
Three more “taikonauts,” or Chinese astronauts, visited in June 2013, travelling on the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft. Each of these crewed missions lasted about two weeks.
Tiangong-1’s design lifetime was just two years, and the space lab’s work was mostly done after Shenzhou-10 departed. The empty space lab continued to do some Earth-observation work, however, and researchers and engineers kept in touch with it until March 2016, when data transmission between Tiangong-1 and its handlers stopped, for reasons that China never explicitly specified. At that point, an uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry was apparently inevitable.
Tiangong-1’s successor, Tiangong-2, launched to Earth orbit in September 2016 and hosted three visiting astronauts a month later. And a robotic vessel called Tianzhou-1 rendezvoused with Tiangong-2 a few months later, performing several automated docking and refuelling operations from April 2017 to September 2017.
Tiangong-1 is not the biggest spacecraft ever to fall from the sky. That distinction goes to the 140-ton (127 metric tons) Soviet/Russian space station Mir, which was guided to a controlled destruction over the Pacific Ocean in March 2001.
The largest craft ever to come down at least partially uncontrolled is NASA’s 100-ton (91 metric tons) space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart as it was returning to Earth on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
Tiangong-1’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere was not controlled, but hundreds of similar spacecraft re-entries have been. Of these controlled descents, nearly 300 crash-landing spacecraft have been intentionally guided to Point Nemo since 1971, Popular Science reported. The buried debris includes everything from spent fuel tanks to spy satellites to entire defunct space stations. Nearly 200 of the cemetery’s residents are Russian in origin, including the area’s biggest celebrity: the 140-ton (127 metric tons) MIR space station, which was guided to Point Nemo in a controlled atmospheric re-entry in 2001. The International Space Station (ISS) is also scheduled to crash into Point Nemo once its mission is complete, sometime after 2024.
The red-hot remains of Tiangong-1 didn’t land precisely in the spacecraft cemetery following their uncontrolled deorbit last night, but they did come somewhat close by pure chance. The space station reportedly landed in the south Pacific Ocean near American Samoa, several thousand miles northwest of Point Nemo.
Officially called an “oceanic pole of inaccessibility,” this watery graveyard for titanium fuel tanks and other high-tech space debris is better known to space junkies as Point Nemo, in honour of Jules Verne’s fictional submarine captain. Point Nemo is further from land than any other dot on the globe: 2,688 kilometres (about 1,450 miles) from the Pitcairn Islands to the north, one of the Easter Islands to the northwest, and Maher Island — part of Antarctica — to the South.