First Chinese space station crashes back to Earth

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Dr Brad Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.
CHINA’s first space station, “Tiangong-1”, which is now defunct, is set to crash back to Earth over the coming days in a manner similar to the final scenes of the Hollywood movie “Gravity”, according to ANU’s Brad Tucker.

Dr Tucker says Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace”, is in an uncontrolled descent towards Earth and will mostly burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating dazzling streaks of light in the sky.

But, he says, it’s highly unlikely that any of these pieces of the space station are going to land near somebody’s house.

“You’re more likely to win the lottery multiple times than have any of it get anywhere near you,” he says.

“But if you are in an area where you can see it, you’ll enjoy a nice light show just like in the ending of the movie, ‘Gravity’.”

Launched in 2011 as a prototype, Tiangong-1 space station’s mission ended in 2013. At the time, China planned a controlled re-entry into the South Pacific Ocean.

“The South Pacific Ocean is a spacecraft graveyard – home to hundreds of satellites, rocket boosters, and even the Russian space station ‘Mir’, that reach the end of their lives,” he says.

“Instead of ending up as large pieces of space junk, they are deliberately de-orbited to burn up and crash over uninhabited parts of the Earth.”

China left Tiangong-1 in operation until 2016 until its successor Tiangong-3 was deployed.

“This proved to be too long and China notified the United Nations that they had lost control of their space station, and the decommissioned space station was slowly coming back to Earth – but they were not sure where or when,” Dr Tucker says.

“This is just one big piece of space junk but there are hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces, which pose a much greater threat to missions in Earth’s orbit, again like in the movie ‘Gravity’.”

Dr Tucker says ANU is taking the lead in trying to find ways to solve the space junk problem, including through hosting the Space Environment Research Centre.

ANU researchers are working on a technology called a laser guide star to help make it safer to navigate around space junk.

A laser guide star creates an artificial star in a part of the sky where there is no bright star and allows astronomers and space scientists to make scientific measurements.

In addition to laser guide stars, researchers use lasers to measure where satellites or pieces of debris are in space, and predict where they will be in future.

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