Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tiangong-1 Space Laboratory to Fall to Earth in About 2-3 Weeks

Artist's rendition of Tiangong-1 in Earth orbit. Image Credit: CNSA

New calculations made by Aerospace Corporation and ESA indicate that China’s disabled Tiangong-1 space laboratory will crash into Earth between March 28 and April 11.

Beijing lost control over Tiangong-1 on March 16, 2016, most likely due to a dysfunctional battery charger. Since then, the module has been unable to recharge its batteries from its two solar arrays. Chinese officials confirmed in mid-September of 2016 that the spacecraft was heading for an imminent re-entry, but they still did not disclose whether the station’s descent is controlled or not.

Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit corporation that provides technical guidance and advice on all aspects of space missions, has recently updated its report regarding Tiangong-1’s atmospheric re-entry. The document now states that the spacecraft will fall to Earth somewhere between March 28 and April 11.

Furthermore, ESA’s Space Debris Office provides similar estimates, even narrowing the predicted re-entry window. According to new calculations posted on March 15, Tiangong-1 will crash into the planet between March 30 and April 6. However, the office noted that these dates are highly variable, for instance due to the variations of the atmosphere.

The two predictions further confirm that the space laboratory will re-enter the atmosphere somewhere between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitudes. This large swath of Earth includes Northern parts of the U.S., as well as countries such as Spain, Italy, Turkey, China, North Korea or Japan in the Northern hemisphere. When it comes to the Southern hemisphere, most probably those locations which might be affected would be: Chile, Argentina, Southern Australia or New Zealand.

Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace” in Chinese) is China’s first space laboratory. With a mass of about 8.5 metric tons, Tiangong-1 measures some 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of approximately 11 feet (3.4 meters). The station was launched in September of 2011. Nine months later, in June, 2012, three Chinese taikonauts docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to the station for the first time. The module was visited again in June 2013 when the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft transported another trio of taikonauts.

Besides being used as a laboratory for space research, Tiangong-1 also served as an experimental platform from which China could demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. The orbiting laboratory was also used as a stepping stone to pave the way for the nation’s future space stations, the next of which the country plans to complete in 2022.

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