Chinese space station crashes back to Earth
China’s first ever space station burned up over the southern Pacific Ocean -- ending months of speculation over where and when it would fall.
Global attention over the space station’s fate began in 2016, when engineers lost contact with it. After initial speculation, a senior Chinese official confirmed to state media that Tiangong-1 had “ended its data service” and would fall back to the Earth.
China had repeatedly tried to assure everyone that Tiangong-1 would largely burn up after entering the atmosphere -- and any remaining debris was extremely unlikely to cause any danger. It’s a view shared by experts around the world, including the European Space Agency, which said you were way more likely to get hit by lightning than space debris.
Usually, space agencies guide old satellites and space stations to make sure that any debris falls safely into the Spacecraft Cemetery -- a remote part of the Pacific Ocean off the eastern coast of New Zealand.
But this time, because China had no control over Tiangong-1, there was no way to know exactly where it would fall until right before it happened.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it crashed north of the Spacecraft Cemetery, to the northwest of Tahiti.
Tiangong-1 -- approximately the size of a school bus -- launched in 2011 to help its astronauts and engineers practice docking missions.
Under the original plan, it was supposed to retire in two years -- the last time it hosted astronauts was in 2013. But China decided to keep it in orbit beyond its original retirement.
Losing control of Tiangong-1 is an embarrassing hiccup in China’s space ambitions, but it hasn’t dampened the country’s goal to set up a bigger, permanent space station sometime around 2022.
The country's second space station Tiangong-2 -- launched in 2016 -- is still in orbit, and successfully docked with the country’s first cargo spacecraft last year.