China’s first space station had a good run, but it’s about time for the Tiangong-1 to pack it in. China reports the station will fall out of orbit sometime in March, but it doesn’t know exactly when or where that will happen. There is some concern that pieces of the 9.4-ton station will reach Earth’s surface, but you probably don’t need to fret — the odds of it causing damage are remote.
China launched the Tiangong-1 module in 2011 as its first manned space station, but it wasn’t intended as a long-term base of operations like the International Space Station. Tiangong-1 was more a proof of concept — a way for the China National Space Administration to test its ideas about autonomous orbital docking and modular space station design.
Chinese astronauts visited Tiangong-1 several times, most recently in 2013. Upon leaving, the crew set the station to sleep mode with the intention of leaving it that way for some time. China’s space agency wanted to track Tiangong-1 over the course of several years to test the long-term viability of certain components, but the station had already completed its intended mission. Thus, it wasn’t a great tragedy when ground control lost contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016.
The cause of the communications failure isn’t known, but teams around the world have been tracking the station remotely ever since. That’s how we know it’ll crash to Earth at some point in March of this year. Furthermore, we know it’ll most likely hit the surface between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitudes. Part of the US is technically in the potential impact zone, but it’s more likely the debris just ends up in the ocean.
Crew entering Tiangong-1 for the first time.
When Tiangong-1 enters the atmosphere, most of the 10-meter-long station will break up into tiny pieces, but the engines are probably too dense to break apart. Those 220 pound (100 kg) components are expected to reach the surface intact. Tiangong-1 also carries a supply of Hydrazine propellant, which is highly toxic. As long as the engines don’t land right next to your house, there’s nothing to worry about.
China will not be left without a space station when Tiangong-1 crashes to Earth. It launched the Tiangong-2 module in 2016, and it continues to operate normally. Chinese astronauts visited the Tiangong-2 in 2016, staying for 30 days. That was a record for Chinese-operated space stations and twice as long as astronauts lived on Tiangong-1.
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