Last fall, news broke that China essentially had a “runaway” space lab. It was announced that the lab was making its way back toward the Earth’s atmosphere and that sometime in the Spring of 2018 it would likely crash somewhere on the planet’s surface. Well, on April 2nd that happened.
Thankfully, when the Tiangong-1 space lab crashed it wasn’t near any habituated parts of the Earth. The lab weighed 8.5 tons and was 34 feet long. Aside from being China’s first space lab, what made the Tiangong-1 unique is that its reentry was completely uncontrolled. Usually, labs are specifically designed to burn up in the earth’s atmosphere during reentry, or they’re built with controlled descent features so that they splash down in an area in the Pacific Ocean known as Point Nemo. In the case of Tiangong-1, the laws of physics were entirely in control.
The exact time of reentry wasn’t truly known until just six or seven hours prior to when it actually happened. China’s space agency had been out of contact with the craft since September of 2016, and while they had some predictions as to where the lab would crash, there was concern as many of those predictions included populated portions of Southern Europe, China, Australia, South America and the United States. Granted, the predictions showed a slim chance of pieces of the craft actually impacting humans or their property (1 in 10,000), it was still a cause for concern.
In the end, there was no need for worry. At 8:15 Beijing time on April 2nd the Tiangong-1 reentered the earth’s atmosphere and most of the spacecraft burned up over the central South Pacific, nowhere near any civilization. Experts still warn that some pieces of the lab might have survived the reentry and crashed on land. While the chances of a human discovering any of the debris are slim, experts warn that pieces of the wreckage should not be touched, as they may be contaminated with a toxic rocket fuel called hydrazine.
While the Tiangong-1 event was drama-free, there are certainly lessons to be learned and the data will no doubt be used in the future when it comes to the atmospheric reentry of future spacecraft.