Tiangong-1 – China’s prototype space station

Introduction

Tiangong-1 was China’s prototype space station. Its name translates as Heavenly Place-1 or Celestial place-1. It orbited Earth from September 2011 to April 2018. During this time, it served as a crewed laboratory and an experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. It had 2 years of active operational life.

Structure of Tiangong-1

Tiangong -1 was around 34ft long, and 11ft wide. It had a habitable internal volume of 15m3. The space station consisted of 2 components. the first was a “resource module”. This comprised the space laboratory’s solar power and propulsion system. In addition, was an “experimental module” that housed the astronauts and scientific work. The experimental module also possessed exercise gear and two sleep stations. High-resolution interior cameras closely monitored the crewed mission from the ground. The two sleep stations also had individual lighting controls. The Shenzhou spacecraft provided toilet facilities and cooking equipment for the crewed mission.

Tiangong-1 structure
Tiangong-1 structure

The Launch

The craft launched without anyone aboard on 29 September 2011. Later, on 30 September 2011, it finished the second of two orbital transfer operations and reached an altitude of 355km. This was a precursor to a week program of orbital testing that was conducted from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre. This program prepared the module for future orbital docking operations.

Tiangong-1 launch

Tiangong-1’s Mission

Tiangong-1’s main mission was to help China master the technologies required to assemble and operate a bonafide space station in earth orbit. It is a goal the nation aims to achieve by the early 2020s. Tiangong’s design lifetime was solely 2 years. After Shenzhou-10 departed, the space lab’s work was mostly done. The researchers and engineers continued to keep in touch with the space lab until March 2016.

Post Mission

On 21 March 2016, the China Manned Space Engineering Office announced that they had officially disabled the data service and ended the mission. Due to this, a controlled re-entry was not likely to happen. The space lab would therefore pull by the atmospheric drag and fall back to Earth on its own.   

Tiangong-1’s Re-entry

The orbit of Tiangong-1 was decaying gradually, besides, it was predicted to be destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Various organizations such as the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), the U.S.-based analysis group Aerospace Corp., the China National Space Administration, as well as the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee made these predictions. 

The Aerospace Corporation’s Centre for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies (CORDS) predicted that if any parts of the station survived re-entry, the debris would impact the ground of an area around a few hundred square kilometers. Furthermore, they stated that the likely areas for debris impact included the south of Southern America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. On 1 April 2018, China’s Tiangong-1 space lab burned up in the atmosphere over the Southern Pacific Ocean and fell right in the middle of the window. It was the largest spacecraft to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere following the Fobos-Grunt in January 2012. This uncontrolled re-entry of the spacecraft was an unintended coincidence.

Tiangong-1 reentry impacts probabilities

Tiangong-1 crash video

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