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Chinese Space Station Tiangong-1 Crashed

by Tejaswi Bhardwaj


In September 2011, the China National Space Administration launched an 8.5 metric tones space station which was used as a technology protocol Chinese space station being live since 2013. Tiangong-1 since 2013, gathered data which helped Chinese find minerals and monitor ocean and for forecasting applications. The Chinese space station flies over land and sea from 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south, which rules out re-entry over the UK and much of Europe. The space station helped in dealing with emergencies such as China’s Yuyao flood disaster in 2013, according to the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office. 


Fig 1  The Tiangong Chinese Space Station Image © China Manned Space Agency

As the aircraft was in a low-Earth orbit, it experienced minuscule drag from atmospheric gas molecules gradually slowing its speed and lowering its altitude (where in turn it experienced more drag). The space station's orbit had been slowly decaying since then. By May 2017, Tiangong-1 was coasting about 218 miles above Earth and was dropping by about 525 feet a day. Gradually, it lost altitude in its last few orbits around the Earth. This was the reason why the Chinese space officials lost contact with the 9.4-ton ( 8.5 metric ton) station in 2016 after five successful years of operation.  As a result the space station Tiangong-1 re-entered the atmosphere and crashed into the pacific ocean on April 1,2018.

In the last hours of Tiangong-1's flight, Chinese space authorities closely watched its trajectory and released two announcements about its position in orbit on Monday morning before the last one confirming its re-entry. According to the tracking done by the Beijing Aerospace Control Center and the analysis reports posted online by the China Manned Space Agency and other Chinese space organizations, the re-entry of the space station took place on April 2, 2018 at 8:15 am during which most of the aircraft burnt up in the process having remnants found to be crashed somewhere in the central part of the South Pacific. With a designated life span of two years, the spacecraft was in service for four and a half years before its retirement was announced. It hosted China's first woman astronaut, Liu Yang of the Shenzhou IX mission. The country's second woman in space, Wang Yaping, from the Shenzhou X mission, did a 40 minute televised science lecture from the space lab watched by more than 60 million Chinese students from about 80,000 schools by authorities in March 2016.


Fig 2 Photo taken on June 13, 2013 shows the screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center showing the Shenzhou X manned spacecraft conducting an automated docking with the orbiting Tiangong I space module and the view outside the propelling module of the Shenzhou X manned spacecraft (L, down)   Image © Beijing Aerospace Control Center

Normally, when an unshielded spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere, external parts such as the solar panels and antennas are the first victims of the atmospheric drag. Then its main structure burns or explodes from increasing heat and friction.Such a spacecraft normally then disintegrates at an altitude of about 80 kilometers and fragments continue to burn. Most are reduced to ash and dissipate. 

A high-speed stream of particles from the sun, which was expected to reach Earth and influence our planet's geomagnetic field, did, in fact, not have any effect, and calmer space weather around Earth and its atmosphere is now expected in the coming days,  ESA officials said in the forecast.Only a small amount of debris may reach the surface.Monday's re-entry put an end to months of speculation surrounding the fate of Tiangong I, which contributed greatly to China's ability to build a space station on its own.

Fig 3 Tiangong-1 potential re-entry area. Map showing the area between 42.8 degrees north and 42.8 degrees south latitude (in green), over which Tiangong-1 was predicted to re-enter   Image ©  ESA CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

 
Fig 4 Image showing the re-entry of the Tiangong-1 space station Image © Aerospace Corporation

The lab fragments, if any, are expected to land somewhere between the latitudes of 43ºN and 43ºS, an area largely covered by the ocean but that also includes countries like the US, Brazil, Spain, and China itself.

 
Fig 5 Photo of Tiangong-2 Space Station    Image © China Manned Space Agency

China launched its second space lab, Tiangong II, in September 2016. It was occupied by two Chinese astronauts from the Shenzhou XI mission in October and November of that year. Both the Tiangong I and II were tasked with verifying technologies and equipment that will be used on a future space station.The nation will start building that space station around 2020, according to the government's plan. The 60-ton station will have three parts ; a core module attached to two space labs, each weighing about 20 tons and will operate for atleast 10 years, according to the manned space agency.The space station is expected to be fully operational around 2022.


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