Tiangong-1 Review

Chinese Space Station Tiangong-1 Falling Fast

The world is watching as Chinese space station Tiangong-1 hurtles toward Earth and makes a fiery reentry. Chances that space debris will hurt anybody are extremely slim, although when and where the space station’s remains will land is still unknown.

What goes up must come down, which is generally true if the “what” is a space station. However, exactly when and where it will land on Earth is anybody’s guess, especially if the space station is China’s Tiangong-1. Sent into orbit on September 30, 2011, Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace 1,” is China’s first space lab, the prototype for China’s ambitious space program to launch a permanent, 20-ton space station in 2023. Tiangong-1 weighs 8.5 tons, measures 34 feet by 11 feet, and is the approximate size of a school bus.

Tiangong-1’s initial launch was unmanned, but it has a habitable experimental module to house astronauts. Its primary mission was to perform docking and orbital experiments. Over a five-year period, two successful manned missions by taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) took place, which included China’s first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.

For Tiangong-1’s return to Earth, China’s original plan was to control its descent using thruster burn. However, on March 16, 2016, China reported to the United Nations that Tiangong-1 “ceased functioning” but didn’t state why. There has been considerable speculation as to the cause, but only the Chinese know for certain. Tiangong-1 is now on a decaying orbit as its altitude slowly decreases while its falling speed toward Earth rapidly increases. When it reaches Earth’s upper atmosphere, the space station will make its uncontrolled reentry.