With a bright flash and streaks of fire [that no one saw], a defunct Chinese spacecraft the size of a school bus shattered and burned to dust after hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at 8 kilometers per second.
Pieces of it, including unknown fuel and metal components, landed northwest of Tahiti in the South Pacific at around 8:15am Beijing time (00:15 GMT) on Monday.
The chance the debris ever had of affecting a human was there, but nearly zero.
In 2011, Tiangong-1 was launched into orbit, the flagship of China’s emerging manned space exploration programme. Over two missions, six taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) performed experiments, broadcast public lectures, imaged the ground and tested docking maneuvers and life-support systems.
The first two Chinese women in space lived on board the Tiangong-1. In 2013, its final crew departed.
In 2016, to some international surprise, Chinese authorities announced its operators lost data communications with the ship. Observers have been scrambling to predict its seemingly uncontrolled trajectory since then.
Most satellites are not meant to end with the uncertainty of Tiangong-1.
“I believe that the end of life plan for Tiangong-1 was a directed reentry,” said Roger Thompson of Aerospace, a company tracking the Tiangong-1’s descent.
“Some satellites are moved to graveyard orbits, some are re-entered, but there’s a 15 percent failure rate to reach the designed end-of-life plan,” Thompson said.
Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, was the first semi-permanent Chinese home in space. “The public started to know a lot more about space programmes after we started our own manned spacecraft programmes,” said Jiao Weixin, Earth and Space Science professor at Peking University.
“If we are not developing it, Chinese people probably won’t know too much,” Weixin said.
The station predated Jade Rabbit – a rover on the Moon – and was followed by the still operational Tiangong-2.
China has poured money into space development following the announcement of Project 921 in 1992. In 2014 the nation expanded its space budget over the previous year by 35 percent.
“China would like to go from a big country to a powerful country in space,” Weixin said, adding: “We want to make sure our technologies are world class.”
In addition to building the world’s largest radio telescope and experimenting with satellite-based quantum cryptography, future goals include lunar missions, returning Martian samples and building more permanent space installations.
One reason there are few public details about Tiangong-1 could be chilly relations between China’s space authorities and the US.
In 2011, US legislators passed the Wolf amendment, banning NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy from collaborating with China, a communist country.
“The US, for very political reasons has shunned [China], pushing them into creating their own independent human space flight and robotic programme,” Joan Johnson Freese, author of Space as a Strategic Asset said.
“I think there’s a dangerous trend going on right now regarding military space programmes. The creation of space forces, the integration of space into mainline military capabilities, I think the potential for the rubicon to be crossed is increasing.”
Tiangong-1, Freese clarified, “was more akin to the Apollo programme,” which sent US astronauts to the moon.
Tracking objects that are shrouded in state secrecy created headaches for global skywatchers. Governments and companies, wanting to protect their own satellites and calm their populations, were forced to extrapolate.
Viewed from China, cold relations may have boosted national science activities. “Some scientists joke that we owe our current achievements partially to the United States’ unfriendliness,” Weixin said.
“Because we didn’t really have external support, we ended up developing the entire system ourselves.”