China’s Tiangong-1 space lab finally plummeted to Earth on Sunday evening, as scientists predicted.
The spacecraft – about the size of a city bus – almost entirely burned up on its entrance to the Earth’s atmosphere, breaking into small pieces as it fell over the South Pacific Ocean, NPR reports. The rundown spacecraft has been slowly leaving its original orbit for several years now.
The space lab flew down from orbit towards the South Pacific at around 8:16 pm Eastern Time. The disintegrated debris that survived the blazing re-entry is most likely small and relatively harmless, according to scientists.
Rebecca Hersher said,
The Chinese space agency had originally planned to bring the lab back in a more controlled way. But after it stopped functioning in 2016, they decided to let it fall to earth on its own.
Earlier reports described the space lab as part of China’s planned research into progressing in the space race. The spacecraft was meant to be a step towards making a permanently staffed space station of their own, as China is not a part of the operation of the International Space Station. A second space lab, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016.
Scott Neuman of NPR said, “The 34-foot-long, 18,000 pound Tiangong-1, or ‘Heavenly Palace-1’ was launched in 2011 as China’s first attempt at an orbiting space lab. 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. A year later, another crew included the country’s second woman in space, Wang Yaping.”
The literal fall of Tiangong-1 has long been tracked and anticipated, first noticed by an amateur satellite tracker in 2016, months before the Chinese government acknowledged that their space lab would come crashing back down from its uncontrolled orbit.
Bill Ailor, of the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, said that this re-entry is not particularly dangerous for people.