A space station is about to fall from the sky. The Chinese station Tiangong-2 is scheduled to drop out of orbit on 19 July and fall into the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Chile.
Tiangong-2 – which translates as “heavenly palace” – was launched in September 2016, and it was never intended to be a permanent fixture in orbit. Instead, its purpose was to test technologies for China’s larger planned space station, whose main module is scheduled to launch in 2020. That space station is planned to be about one-fifth the size of the International Space Station. Tiangong-2 is far smaller.
In October 2016, two astronauts travelled to Tiangong-2 aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. While on the space station they performed experiments on human physiology in space as well as exploring other areas of science. After about a month they returned home. In 2017, a cargo spacecraft docked with Tiangong-2 three times to test its docking and refueling capabilities.
In 2018, Tiangong-2 began to lower its orbit to prepare for the end of its mission. On 19 July, it will fire its thrusters again to aim its descent toward the Pacific Ocean. Most of the craft will probably burn up as it enters the atmosphere, but any parts that survive should splash into the water harmlessly.
The space station is still fully functional, and is being brought down purposefully now that it’s finished the experiments it was launched to carry out. This will avoid the fate of its predecessor, Tiangong-1, which lost power in April 2018 and crashed down in an uncontrolled fashion. Its remains also fell into the ocean, but that was simple luck. This time, Chinese officials will make sure that their space station hits water.
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