Final images sent from a Chinese space station as it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere

Launched in 2016, the Tiangong-2, a small Chinese space station, finally came home to Earth. In a way, anyway. China launched the craft to serve as a testing bed for new space technologies the country is developing, and it lasted longer in space than anyone thought it would – more than 1,000 days.

The station was “deorbited,” in a controlled descent maneuver that took it into our atmosphere, where it subsequently burned up, breaking into smaller debris that landed in the South Pacific.

Aboard the Chinese Space Station

Although some of the missions on the Tiangong-2 were manned, the bulk of the experiments designed to test low-gravity conditions on various tools and low-orbital refueling, were unmanned.

Experiments conducted onboard the Tiangong-2 have led to a consortium of Swiss, Polish, German and Chinese organizations to create POLAR-2, which was one of six selected to conduct experiments with “gamma-ray-burst polarimetry” aboard the upcoming Chinese Space Station.

The other chosen experiments run the gamut from biotechnology, astronomy, and space medicine to combustion and fluid physics in microgravity. The experiments were chosen in a joint decision made by the “United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs” and the CMSA.

Astronauts were limited to a single month-long period they could be on the Tiangong-2 because it was a relatively small – and uncomfortable — environment to live in, according to the report. It weighed only eight tons, and the International Space Station dwarfs it by comparison.


Screen Shot 2019 07 24 at 1.18.21 PM
Astronauts aboard the Tiangong-2 via YouTube

Future space stations planned

Because China wants to send more astronauts to space, increasing the number of manned missions to five per year – up from one every few years – the country plans to replace the Tiangong-2 with another space station.

According to the report:

“The China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) announced it intends to launch beginning with the core Tianhe-1 module in 2020.”

However, before sending the Tianhe-1, China will send a “non-flight” model at the end of 2019 as a “dress rehearsal.” Then, if that goes well, China will launch a test flight of the “Long March 5B,” then if that goes well, they’ll launch the Tianhe-1 in 2020 as scheduled. After which, China will launch a couple of “experimental modules” in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The country is also planning cargo and manned missions for the same years.

China intends that this new Chinese Space Station will house up to three astronauts at a time, and:

“Will be joined by a co-orbiting Hubble-class space telescope that can dock for propellant supply, maintenance and repairs.”

The planned deorbiting of Tiangong-2 comes a year after the Tiangong-1 fell to the Earth in an unplanned deorbiting in 2018. Launched in 2011, its decaying orbit caused Tiangong-1 to deorbit before China scheduled it, and it broke up over unpopulated land.

CMSEO initially turned the deorbiting of the Tiangong-2 into a quiz game using social media platform WeChat. The organization asked about such things as mission details and launch times. Even though Tiangong-2 lasted longer than anyone expected it to, they planned the deorbit likely to avoid another unplanned deorbit. This way, they could control where it landed and make sure people were safe.


Related: A look inside the spacecraft cemetery almost no one knows exists

Check out the deorbiting of the Tiangong-2 here:

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Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube Video

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