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The Mystery of the Tiangong-1

Is China's Heavenly Palace satellite headed for an uncontrolled crash landing?

07·20·2016

The Mystery of the Tiangong-1

Is China's Heavenly Palace satellite headed for an uncontrolled crash landing?

07·20·2016

Last week, reports surfaced that China might have lost control of satellite Tiangong-1, meaning it could effectively be out of control and on its way down to earth. As yet, there has been no concrete confirmation of whether it is fine or whether it is spiraling downward into fiery doom.

Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace” is an unmanned space-craft which was launched in 2011 as China’s first attempt at establishing an orbiting station at in space. It is a single module space station, intended as a forerunner for a larger, multi-module space station.

Speculation that China has lost control of Tiangong-1 can be linked to two things, the first being a slightly ambiguous press release from the government earlier this year, announcing that data links with the spacecraft had been terminated and that its descent to earth would be monitored. Secondly, the panic has been sourced by recent observations from amateur astronomers,who have noticed the space station flickering, an indication that it might be spinning around.

Thomas Dorman, an amateur astronomer who tracks satellites and has observed the gradual fall of Tiangong-1, told Space.com: “If I am right, China will wait until the last minute to let the world know it has a problem with their space station. It could be a real bad day if pieces of this came down in a populated area … but odds are, it will land in the ocean or in an unpopulated area.”

Tiangong-1 is currently one of only two space stations in space- the other being NASA’s ISS Space Station. Tiangong-1 was originally planned to be a two-year project, having high experimental value as China’s first space station. At the time of its launch, plans were already underway for larger Chinese spacecraft, and some of these plans are to be realized this September, when China plans to launch a successor, Tiangong-2. Xinhua reports that Tiangong-2 has recently been sent to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in preparation for its departure. In October, China plans to launch a crewed docking missionShenzhou 11, to visit Tiangong 2 in space. Now that China has no further plans for Tiangong-1, opinion is divided as to whether or not there is a legitimate basis for the panic.

State-owned media reported that Tiangong-1’s descent was being monitored in a controlled fashion back in March, when the China Manned Space Engineering announced the termination of data connection with the spacecraft. Silence from China in the following months has been interpreted by some as bad news. Dean Cheng, a senior fellow from the Asian Studies Center is one such person, telling space.com: “That [China’s silence] would seem to suggest that it’s not being deorbited under control. That’s the implication.”

Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believes this idea may have been reached prematurely, giving reassurances that “it’s too soon to tell whether Tiangong-1 is out of control. In the history of the Space Age, uncontrolled re-entries have been common, and the chance that debris from any one of them hits somebody, it’s one in thousands.”

In the event that the station does not fully burn up in the atmosphere as it comes down, it’s estimated that it will reach the ground in 2017.

 

Cover image from wzrb.com.cn