After much anticipation, China’s high-profile space project, Tiangong-1 has finally come crashing down to Earth.
As Mike Wall writes for Space.com, the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) reported that the prototype space station broke apart and is thought to have largely burned above the southern Pacific Ocean as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere Sunday at about 8:16 p.m. E.D.T.
It’s not clear if and how much of the spacecraft landed on the Earth’s surface, with officials only saying it landed “above the South Pacific,” according to BBC News.
But astrophysicist Brad Tucker, of Australian National University, tells Reuters that small remnants of the defunct lab — about 10 percent — probably landed about about 60 miles from Tahiti. That amount would be equal to around 1,600 pounds.
“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,” he says.
Former U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao tells CNN, however, that major pieces are unlikely to have made it to Earth’s surface. If they did, they are at the bottom of the ocean by now, he says.
For months, experts had been trying to predict where and when the lab would come back down to Earth. Before the crash, China’s space agency had suggested it would land close to Sao Paulo, Brazil, Reuters reports.
As reported by Smithsonian.com last month, the 9.5-ton Tiangong-1 launched in 2011 and was never meant to be a permanent fixture in the sky. It had only a two-year operational lifespan with a mission of preparing China’s space agency to assemble and operate a much larger space station in the early 2020s. The agency also plans to put a man on the moon and send a mission to Mars, according to CNN.
China has not been allowed to participate in the International Space Station for political reasons.
China first announced Tiangong-1 had ceased to function in March 2016, without further explanation, CNN reports, and it’s been on international agencies’ radar since then.
Despite lots of media attention around the de-orbiting, such re-entries are fairly common. As Smithsonian.com reported, SkyLab, the United States’ first manned space station, fell back to Earth in 1978 after eight years in space. The entry was largely uncontrolled and its debris landed in an unpopulated area of Western Australia.
But these days, uncontrolled re-entries like that of Tiangong-1 are against international best practice, according to CNN. As Wall reports, China’s space agency contends they had “control” over the craft since they could provide location information at all times. “But for other space-faring nations, a ‘controlled’ re-entry is one performed under the guidance of a spacecraft’s handlers,” Wall writes.