China’s Lost Space Lab, Tiangong-1

China’s space lab Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011. The name “Tiangong” means “heavenly palace” in Chinese, which reflects its role as a safe place in the midst of emptiness.  It has completed many wonderful projects in its two-year life span, and it’s still orbiting the earth now. However, the Chinese space agency mysteriously lost contact with Tiangong-1 during March, 2016. According to space experts, Tiangong-1 will most likely enter Earth’s atmosphere during March or April of 2018.  

Tiangong-1 was launched successfully on September 20, 2011 with a two-year service life. It was designed to serve as a space laboratory as well as a dock for other spacecrafts. It has completed three docking projects with a series of Chinese “Shenzhou Spacecrafts,” which were China’s first manned space missions. Tiangong-1’s first project was docking with Shenzhou-8 in November 2011. At the time, Tiangong-1 had only been in space for two months. It was an unmanned mission, and the nation’s first autonomous docking between two spacecrafts. China is the third nation to develop this capability, following the United States and Russia. The nation is especially proud of this spacecraft. Tiangong-1’s second docking mission was with Shenzhou-9 in June 2012. The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft had three crew members on board, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang. The third project of Tiangong-1 was in June 2013. It was a docking mission with another manned spacecraft, Shenzhou-10, which also had three crew members on board, and was known for including China’s second female astronaut,  Wang Yaping. During their time on Tiangong-1, Wang delivered a remote video lecture with her colleagues to students across China. She demonstrated the properties of physics in a microgravity environment. These are some of the  glorious achievements of Tiangong-1, and it represents China’s remarkable scientific and technological additions to the world.

Following Tiangong-1’s great work, China prepared the launch of another space lab, Tiangong-2, in 2016. In case of any malfunction in Tiangong-2, Tiangong-1 was kept in the sky as a backup. At that time, however, Tiangong-1 had already been working for five years, which was three years more than it was supposed to have worked for. This fact put the spacecraft at great risk. Although plans for its retirement were made, Tiangong-1 lost its connection with Chinese Space Agencies in March 2016, right before the launch of Tiangong-2. The definitive reason for this remains unknown. From the moment it lost contact with the ground, Tiangong-1 has been orbiting the Earth in an uncontrolled state. When and where this out-of-control spacecraft will hit Earth has become a concern around the world.

Until this moment, Tiangong-1 is still being tracked remotely by multiple agencies, including the Chinese Space Agency, who publish weekly reports of Tiangong-1’s orbital status. Tiangong-1’s altitude has been decreasing at a rate of about 0.1 mile every day, and it is expected to enter the atmosphere in March or April of this year. Tiangong-1’s orbit is inclined at 42.8 ° in comparison to the equator, so its reentry will occur between latitudes 43°N and 43°S. However, the specific date, time, and location of the reentry is still highly uncertain. Even a small variation in the atmosphere or solar activity will greatly affect the reentry. “If you’re off by half an hour, you’re on the other side of the planet,” said Ted Muelhaupt, an expert working in the Aerospace Corporation.

Although exactly when and where Tiangong-1 will hit the Earth still remains unclear, it is almost impossible that it will crash into any populated areas. Throughout history, few pieces of fallen space junk have actually hurt people. According to space experts, the odds of Tiangong-1 debris hitting a human is less than one in a trillion. It is most likely that Tiangong-1 will burn up most of its structure when entering the atmosphere and strike the ocean afterwards.

It is indeed scary to have an 8.5-metric-ton spacecraft orbiting the earth uncontrollably, and it was a mistake on China’s part to not plan the landing of Tiangong-1 before it lost connection, especially since it had been overworking for three years. On the other hand, whether it’s the Shenzhou missions or the Tiangong space labs, China has reached a remarkable scientific milestone in sending multiple astronauts to space and having its own space stations and labs in just a few years. Tiangong-1 has had a long and accomplished life. I hope it will land safely in the following few months, to provide us with decent closure to its six-year-long journey.