China’s out-of-control space station Tiangong-1 is expected to enter the Earth’s atmosphere as early as Easter Sunday
02 April, 2018, 17:40
It landed about 8:15 a.m. Beijing time (8:15 p.m. ET Sunday), China's Manned Space Agency said.
"It did exactly what it was expected to do; the predictions, at least the past 24 hours' ones, were spot on; and as expected it fell somewhere empty and did no damage", said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "It was occupied by two separate crews of three astronauts, or taikonauts, each - a mission in June 2012 included China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang". China lost control of the vessel in 2016.
The difficulties seemed to wrong-foot Chinese space scientists - just moments before announcing that the craft would come down over the Pacific, they had said it would make its re-entry over Sao Paulo and head towards the Atlantic Ocean.
The city bus-sized craft, which nearly entirely burned up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, broke into small pieces as it plummeted over the South Pacific Ocean.
Launched at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on September 29, 2011, Tiangong-1 was tasked to test the technologies in rendezvous and docking between spacecraft and to accumulate experience for developing a space station.
It stressed that the chances of anyone being hit by debris from the module were "10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning".
At the time, China had predicted a late 2017 re-entry, but later estimates pushed that date back into early 2018.
It was a fiery end to what was once one of China's highest-profile space projects. "But after it stopped functioning in 2016, they made a decision to let it fall to earth on its own".
China also plans to put a man on the moon and send a rover to Mars. The massive 140-tonne station was brought down by the Russian space agency over the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Chile, and its burning debris was seen streaking across the sky over Fiji. The 40-tonne station broke up on re-entry and the parts that survived scattered over Argentina.
As NPR's Scott Neuman noted in our earlier reporting, the "space lab" was part of China's planned research as it works toward a permanently staffed space station.
Nasa's Columbia shuttle would also have to be classed as an uncontrolled re-entry.
The disintegration of large spacecraft has not always been without tragedy. The flaming debris from the 80-tonne craft was caught streaking across the sky over the southern United States by local TV stations, with tens of thousands of the doomed shuttle's parts scattered over Texas and Louisiana.
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