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Tiangong-1: Why the 'uncontrolled' space station will burn itself on its way back home

Tiangong-1 has outlived its shelf-life.

  • Published: March 8, 2018 5:07 PM IST
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We have come across multiple reports on how the ‘uncontrolled’ Chinese space station is hurtling towards the Earth, and the scientists are clueless as to where it might possibly land. The space station is the Tiangong-1, China’s first space station, which was launched in 2011 and last year went out of control.

The space station cannot be made to re-enter the orbit, and it has been falling into the Earth’s direction for months now. The Taingong-1 is part of the country’s Tiangong program, which aims to establish a third-generation multi-module space station in orbit during the 2020s. Given the shelf life of the space station is over, there is no other alternative but to let it die during the course of its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Millions of dollars are spent on such space missions, and millions more are required to sustain them. One might argue, why can’t the Tiangong-1 be left in the space to operate indefinitely or why can’t they be brought back to Earth, without destroying, to be studied, retooled, and reused for more missions, just like the SpaceX rockets. As Motherboard explains, one of the reasons for not preserving space stations is money.

The construction and launch of such missions is already an expensive affair, and to bring down the battered vehicles requires a heat shield and parachute system, which takes the costs up even higher.

The second reason for not retaining the space station is the wear and tear that renders them as useless as scrap. For spacecraft exteriors, space is not a very hospitable environment and the surface is constantly pelted by micrometeorites, subjected to high energy radiation, and extreme temperature shifts. While on the inside, microbes from human-occupants make it unsafe for further habitation. Mir, which was launched in 1986, is one of the examples where with time, the surface suffered damage on the outside as well as on the inside. As for the Tiangong-1, it was a prototype, scheduled to last two years, and by 2016, when China lost control of the station, its data service had been inactive.

Until aerospace engineers build space stations the likes of the SpaceX rockets, which are reusable, Tiangong-1 and similar stations will have to mark their re-entry into Earth by death. The European Space Agency estimates the crash landing of Tiangong-1 to take place between March 29 and April 9.

  • Published Date: March 8, 2018 5:07 PM IST