Is another Chinese space station about to crash into Earth?

Is another Chinese space station about to plunge back to Earth? Nation’s Tiangong-2 craft drops 60 miles to orbit strangely close to our planet, and the government won’t reveal why

  • Tiangong-2 was launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket in September 2016  
  • Experts in the US monitored the drop in altitude for ten days from June 13
  • They believe the movements suggest China is preparing to decommission it
  • They will be hoping for a more controlled re-entry than its predecessor station
  • Tiangong-1 hit headlines when it came plummeting back to Earth in April
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Yet another Chinese space station could be about to plunge back to Earth. 

Three months after Tiangong-1 made a fiery re-entry into our atmosphere, it’s sister craft, Tiangong-2, looks like it’s about to do the same. 

But unlike Tiangong-1, Tiangong-2 could have a more controlled descent.  

The spacecraft was observed plummeting around 60 miles (95 km) toward the surface of the planet.

It has since returned to its normal orbital height, sparking speculation that China may be preparing to decommission the vessel in the near future.

China will be hoping to avoid an embarrassing repeat of the events of April, when the nation’s out-of-control Tiangong-1 space station returned to Earth with a bang.

China’s Manned Space Engineering Office has yet to release an official statement on the latest situation. 

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China’s second experimental space station has dropped its orbit, sparking fears it could come crashing back to Earth. Tiangong-2 (artist’s impression) was observed plummeting around 60 miles (95 km) toward the surface of the planet, remaining there for ten days

The manoeuvres became apparent thanks to orbital information made public by US Strategic Command.

Its Joint Space Operations Center, located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, claims the station lowered from an altitude of between 236 and 240 miles (380 to 386 km) to between 181 to 185 miles (292 to 297 km) on June 13.

It remained at that altitude for ten days, before returning its original height above the planet.

Experts believe this suggests China is preparing to decommission the station in a more controlled manner than Tiangong-1. 

Tiangong-1 spiralled out of control, with little certainty possible about when and where it might land.

China’s controlled thrust tests, lowering and raising the satellite on command, hint at a desire to bring the station down at a time and place of their choosing.

While it is unclear exactly when they plan to do so, an area known as the ‘satellite graveyard’ seems a likely location for touch down.

This is a region of the South Pacific Ocean commonly used by Russian and US space agencies to dump debris.

Speaking to SpaceNews, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: ‘It seems likely that the lowering of Tiangong-2’s orbit is the first step in safely disposing of it.’ 

To track the satellite’s orbital path above the Earth in realtime, visit Satview.


China launched its second experimental space station in September 2016. The successful launch (pictured) was seen as a sign of the growing sophistication of the country’s military-backed space program, which also intends to send a mission to Mars in the coming years

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT CHINA’S TIANGONG-2 SPACE STATION?

Tiangong-2 is the second Chinese experimental space station.

It was launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket on 15 September 2016. 

The module is being used for ‘testing systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refuelling,’ according to the Chinese State.

This is being achieved via the crewed Shenzhou-11 and uncrewed Tianzhou-1 cargo missions.


Tiangong-2 is the second Chinese experimental space station (artist’s impression). It was launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket on 15 September 2016

Tiangong-2  also houses experiments in medicine and various space-related technologies.

The lab is equipped with 14 instruments, including the world’s most accurate time piece, according to reports in Chinese state media.

The Cold Atomic Clock in Space developed by researchers in Shanghai can easily be lifted by two people and would fit comfortably in the boot of a car, The South China Post reported at the time of its launch.

Polar, a gamma-ray burst detector developed by an international team of experts, stopped working on April 1, 2017 due to a power failure.

However, it did manage to gather data during its six months of operations, with the results due to be published in 2018. 

The vessel has a crew size of two, with 30 days of life support resources.

In October 2017, Chinese astronauts spent a 30-day stay on the station – China’s longest stay in space.

It is 34 ft (10.4 m) long, 14 ft (4.2 m) in diameter and has a mass of 19,000 lb (8,600 kg).

It is conducting experiments ahead of a Chinese space station planned for 2022. 

Tiangong-2 is the second Chinese experimental space station. It was launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket on 15 September 2016. 

It is 34 ft (10.4 m) long, 14 ft (4.2 m) in diameter and has a mass of 19,000 lb (8,600 kg). 

The module is being used for ‘testing systems and processes for mid-term space stays and refuelling,’ according to the Chinese State.

It is conducting experiments ahead of a Chinese space station planned for 2022. 

In October 2017, Chinese astronauts spent a 30-day stay on the station – China’s longest stay in space.

China’s out of control Tiangong-1 space station smashed into Earth at 17,000 mph (27,358 kph) off the coast of Tahiti on April 2, 2018, and mostly disintegrated as it hit the planet’s atmosphere.


China’s out of control Tiangong-1 space station smashed into Earth at 17,000mph off the coast of Tahiti on April 2, 2018, and mostly disintegrated as it hit the planet’s atmosphere


China’s defunct Tiangong 1 space station hurtled towards Earth and re-entered the atmosphere before touching down. It is pictured here in an undated radar image

The demise of the nine-ton space station had been the subject of scientific speculation for months amid fears large chunks of it could come down near population centres.

Experts had been unable to predict where the installation, which is roughly the size of a school bus, would come down but in the end it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific.

The craft re-entered the atmosphere around 8.15am Beijing time (12.15am GMT) and the ‘vast majority’ of it had burnt up upon re-entry, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said at the time. 

Authorities said any debris from the space station would be carrying hydrazine – a high toxic rocket fuel – and warned people to refrain from touching it or inhaling its fumes. 

WHAT WAS CHINA’S OUT-OF-CONTROL TIANGOING-1 SPACE STATION?

China lost control of its first ever space station, Tiangong-1, in 2016, just five years after its launch.

The 10.4-metre-long (34ft) spacecraft was left to spiral back toward Earth with no way of anticipating where it would land.

In December 2017, China alerted the United Nations that Tiangong-1 would come down by late March 2018 but could not predict exactly when or where.

It was carrying highly toxic chemicals and could have crashed into a number of highly populated areas, including New York, Barcelona and Chicago, according to researchers’ estimated flight paths.

Tiangong-1 came down in the central Pacific Ocean on April 2, 2018, and mostly burned up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

A second Chinese space station, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016 after Tiangong-1 went offline, and remains in orbit.

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