China’s Tiangong-1 Space Station Has Fallen Back to Earth Over the Pacific
A Chinese space station the size of a school bus re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at about 5:16 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, scattering its remaining pieces over the southern Pacific Ocean, according to the United States’ Joint Force Space Component Command.
The demise of the station, Tiangong-1, became apparent when radar stations no longer detected it passing overhead. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries; the likelihood that pieces would land on someone was small, but not zero.
The station may have landed northwest of Tahiti, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said on Twitter. That location is north of the Spacecraft Cemetery, an isolated region in the Pacific Ocean where space debris has frequently landed.
For the past few weeks the fate of Tiangong-1 has provided some drama. The Chinese lost control of the spacecraft a couple of years ago and thus could not guide it to the middle of an ocean. Because of the drag of air molecules bouncing off Tiangong-1, the station’s altitude dropped, and the descent accelerated quickly in the last few days.
Multiple agencies issued predictions of the time of Tiangong-1’s end, most concluding that April 1 was the most likely date. But because it was moving so fast, it was impossible to know where exactly it would come down, and the debris would be scattered over thousands of square miles.
China launched Tiangong-1 — Tiangong translates as “heavenly palace” — in 2011 as essentially a proof-of-concept of technologies for future stations. Two crews of Chinese astronauts visited it, the first for 11 days, the second for 13 days.
In March 2016, the Chinese announced that communications had ended with the space station, but did not provide details. The altitude of the station was last increased three months earlier, in December 2015.