Inkstone
    Mar
    12
    2018
    Mar
    12
    2018
     The Heavenly Palace is about to crash land on Earth
     The Heavenly Palace is about to crash land on Earth
    SCIENCE

    The Heavenly Palace is about to crash land on Earth

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    by
    Xinyan Yu
    Xinyan Yu
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    Where will Sandra Bullock go when she has to abandon the International Space Station? Twitter wants to know.  

    In the 2013 sci-fi thriller Gravity, Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, must make her way to a Chinese space station to return to Earth after the ISS is destroyed.

    Now that very same Chinese space lab is due to crash into Earth’s atmosphere as early as March 29.

    The Chinese space agency lost control over the Tiangong-1 space station in 2016. Tiangong means “Heavenly Palace.”

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    While it’s entirely normal for space stations to re-enter the atmosphere at the end of their natural lifespans, generally splashing down in the South Pacific, it’s a little less usual for space agencies to lose control entirely.

    Tiangong-1 blasts off from the launchpad.
    Tiangong-1 blasts off from the launchpad. Photo: Xinhua/Wang Jianmin

    The European Space Agency said the landing location and time of the spacecraft weighing 8.5 metric tons is highly variable, but could take place anywhere at latitudes between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south.

    That covers a massive area, including cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, Rio, Cape Town and Sydney.

    There have been frantic reactions online about the spacecraft spiraling out of control, but China has assured the world that the chances of Tiangong causing any serious damage are small.

    “Most structures of the spacecraft will be burned out as it falls into the atmosphere,” China’s UN delegation wrote in a note addressing the UN General Assembly last year. “It will pose very little threat to space and ground activities.”

    Happier times: the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft prepares to dock with Tiangong-1 in 2012.
    Happier times: the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft prepares to dock with Tiangong-1 in 2012. Photo: AFP/Jiuquan Space Centre

    Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1 was China’s first space station, and the first component of the long-term Tiangong space station program.

    An unmanned spacecraft and two crewed missions reached the lab in the following two years.

    When the spacecraft went wayward in 2016, China played it down and emphasized that Tiangong had served four and half years instead of its original target of two years, successfully carrying out a series of dockings and zero-gravity experiments.

    Tiangong-1 sits on the launchpad.
    Tiangong-1 sits on the launchpad.

    China’s Manned Space Engineering Office currently keeps a weekly log of Tiangong-1’s status. The latest record, on March 6, says that the craft is looking stable and orbiting at an altitude of roughly 156 miles above Earth.

    Space agencies around the world have been tracking Tiangong-1’s landfall, and China has promised to release information of its projected landing time and impact area in advance.

    The Twittersphere, too, can lay its worries to rest: Tiangong-1’s successor, Tiangong-2, has been up and running since 2016.

    XINYAN YU
    XINYAN YU
    Xinyan is a senior multimedia producer at Inkstone based in Beijing. Previously, she was a producer at BBC News.

    XINYAN YU
    XINYAN YU
    Xinyan is a senior multimedia producer at Inkstone based in Beijing. Previously, she was a producer at BBC News.

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