Chinese Space Station, Adrift For Years, Plummets To Earth

The Tiangong-1 mostly burnt up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, but some pieces likely crashed into the Pacific ocean.

A Chinese space station re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday, more than a year after the country lost contact with the school bus-sized structure, the China National Space Agency confirmed.

Although the Tiangong-1 mostly burnt up upon re-entry, some pieces of the station likely crashed into the Pacific Ocean shortly after 5:15 p.m. Pacific time. U.S. Strategic Command confirmed the re-entry in a statement on Sunday evening.

“One of our missions, which we remain focused on, is to monitor space and the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that congest it,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, deputy commander of the Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), stated. “All nations benefit from a safe, stable, sustainable and secure space domain.”

The JFSCC does not track what happens to space debris after it re-enters the atmosphere.

The Tiangong-1 station, which translates to “heavenly palace” in English, has been a topic of discussion among space-watchers for weeks after its fall towards Earth began to accelerate. Analysts said it was likely the 9.4-ton structure would tumble back home sometime between March 30 and April 2.

Those predictions proved true on Sunday.

Two crews of astronauts visited the Tiangong-1 station after it was launched in 2011. However, since March 2016, China has been unable to communicate with the station.

An astrophysicist told Reuters that about 10 percent of the station may have fallen into the ocean northwest of Tahiti.

“Small bits definitely will have made it to the surface,” Brad Tucker, a research fellow at Australian National University, said. “Most likely the debris is in the ocean, and even if people stumbled over it, it would just look like rubbish in the ocean and be spread over a huge area of thousands of square kilometers.”

According to The New York Times, there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. Most of the debris fell north of the Spacecraft Cemetery, where Russia’s Mir station arrived in 2001.

The Tiangong-2, China’s other space station, remains in orbit. The country plans to complete another station by 2022, the state-run Xinhua News reported.

The Tiangong-1 re-entered Earth's atmosphere on Sunday evening. The Chinese said they lost contact with the space station in
The Tiangong-1 re-entered Earth's atmosphere on Sunday evening. The Chinese said they lost contact with the space station in 2016.