China’s out of control space station, the Tiangong-1, finally fell into the fiery grip of earth’s atmosphere on Sunday night, reentering at approximately 8:16 p.m. EST somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
“U.S. Strategic Command’s (USSTRATCOM) Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), confirmed Tiangong-1 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean at approximately 5:16 p.m. (PST) April 1, 2018,” the Air Force wrote in a statement. According to Air Force officials, JFSCC coordinated their tracking effort with similar military bodies from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, as questions remained regarding where the space station would reenter right up until the final hours of its descent.
The 19,000 pound space station, first launched in 2011, has been on a collision course with earth since at least March 21, 2016, when the Chinese government publicly acknowledged that they had lost their telemetry link with the station, meaning it was now complete out of their control. The 18,000 pound space craft was in an uncontrolled and deteriorating orbit ever since, but because of the immense speed in which it traveled around the earth, it was difficult to assess just where it might reenter over — prompting concerns that any debris that survives reentry could cause damage upon impact.
While it does appear that a fair amount of the Tiangong-1 may have survived the immense heat created by the friction of reentry, any debris that remained appears to have fallen harmlessly into the Pacific, “out in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where we hoped it would land,” according Roger Thompson, a senior engineering specialist with Aerospace Corp. of El Segundo, California. Their outfit has worked alongside NASA tracking the space station since they first announced a loss of control in 2016.
“It would look like several dozen comets that were streaming along,” Thompson told reporters.
According to his estimates, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the space station may have actually made it all the way to the earth’s surface, significantly more than had been estimated leading up to the event and justifying concerns about the threat it posed if it had reentered over land. Of course, because the surface of the earth is 70% water, the odds were on mankind’s side.
The fact that so much of the space station actually survived reentry actually places it in rare company, according to analysts at the European Space Agency.
“Since the beginning of the space age, we’ve counted about 6,600 of these uncontrolled reentries for any type of spacecraft, and out of these 6,600 cases, there have been only 70 where pieces have been found on the ground that were unambiguously identified as coming from a spacecraft,” said Stijn Lemmens, a space debris analyst at the European Space Agency, which has also been tracking the defunct orbiter. However, because the Tiangong-1 crashed into an unpopulated stretch of ocean, it will not be counted among those 70 or so cases where debris has been found and identified.
Keeping tabs on orbital bodies is not just a concern of national and international space bodies, the U.S. military also keeps close tabs on the behavior of the man-made objects orbiting high above our heads. Although the Tiangong-1, which loosely translates to “Heavenly Palace,” was launched with high expectations, once it was no longer able to maneuver under its own power to direct its reentry as most international norms require, it became nothing more than a massive bit of space junk — which could easily become a threat to national security, thanks to America’s reliance on its constellations of navigation and communications satellites.
The JFSCC works alongside government, industry and international partners to track and report reentries, to include today’s Tiangong-1 reentry, because the space domain is vital to our shared international security interests,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, Deputy Commander, JFSCC, and Commander, 14th Air Force. “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, while at the same time working with allies and partners to enhance spaceflight safety and increase transparency in the space domain.”
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons