China's Tiangong-1 crashes down over the Pacific as predicted

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A model of the Tiangong-1 space lab module (L), the Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft (R) and three Chinese astronauts is displayed during a news conference at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in Gansu province, China June 15, 2012. Reuters/Jason Lee/File Photo

Chinese space authorities have confirmed that a space station re-entered Earth's atmosphere and has burnt up over the middle of the South Pacific on Monday. Tiangong-1, also known as the "Heavenly Palace," was expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry to Earth this month.

Aerospace Corporation’s Dr Roger C Thompson has confirmed the reports of Tiangong-1 hitting the atmosphere above the South Pacific. Thompson has been monitoring the space station.

Re-entry, he said, took place 14 minutes before the Aerospace Corporation thought it would. The organisation was reportedly pleased with the prediction given the four-hour window in which the re-entry could occur. China had said it would happen late last year, but it was delayed.

The United States Air Force 18th Space Control Squadron had reportedly tracked the space station in its re-entry over the South Pacific. A statement confirms the re-entry in coordination with counterparts in Australia, Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea.

Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at Australian National University, said that the remnants of the space station appeared to have landed around 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Tahiti. "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 kilometres,” Reuters reports him as saying.

Beijing has said it is unlikely that large pieces would reach the ground. The odds of space debris hitting a person is said to be less than one in 1 trillion. CORDS experts’ advice is that it is best not to touch any space debris.

Tiangong-1 is China’s first space station. It was launched aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 30, 2011. It was designed to be a manned lab and a demonstration for the larger Tiangong station.

China’s original plan for Tiangong-1’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere was to control its descent using thruster burn. China reported to the United Nations in March 2016 that telemetry services with the space station had “ceased functioning.”

Based on The Aerospace Corporation’s analyses, Tiangong-1 is now on a decaying orbit. The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Debris Reentry Studies (CORDS) closely monitors Tiangong-1’s re-entry. The CORDS particularly looks into Aerospace’s research and technology applications in space collision avoidance, debris and re-entry breakup.