China’s defunct space station comes to a fiery end over the South Pacific

Tiangong-1 radar image
Fraunhofer

You can sleep easy tonight. China’s Tiangong-1 space station will not land on your head.

The U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) confirmed in a statement that the school-bus-sized space lab mostly broke apart and burned up when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the South Pacific Ocean at 8:16 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 1 (0016 GMT on Monday).

The JFSCC said it used the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm the satellite’s re-entry, and also worked with data supplied by counterparts in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, posted an image showing where the main part of the station is believed to have come down. It appears to be around 2,500 miles south of Hawaii and some 2,800 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. In his tweet, McDowell references the so-called “spacecraft graveyard” where many decommissioned satellites have met their end.

“NW of Tahiti — it managed to miss the ‘spacecraft graveyard’ which is further south!” McDowell tweeted.

The chances of debris landing on a densely populated area were always small, and initial reports suggests any parts that survived the burn-up will have landed in the sea, as expected. But it’ll be sensible to wait until we receive confirmation that any debris that reached the Earth’s surface cleared the South Pacific’s tens of thousands of tiny islands.

More than 10 meters long and weighing 8.75 tons, the Tiangong-1 (translated as “Heavenly Palace”) satellite was launched by the Chinese in 2011 and decommissioned five years later. The demise of the out-of-control satellite had been highly anticipated by millions of people around the world, though considering its large size and the fact that it could have landed pretty much anywhere, it was hardly surprising.

Powell later offered up some more thoughts linked to the now non-existent satellite, suggesting you should “always bet on the Pacific” when it comes to defunct space machinery falling to Earth.

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