China’s Tiangong-1 space lab is no more.
The 8.5-ton spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere at about 5:15 p.m. PT today (00:15 GMT on April 2) over the Pacific Ocean, and any pieces that survived the fiery plunge should have fallen into the central area of the South Pacific, Chinese space officials said.
The U.S. military’s Joint Force Space Component Command issued a similar report, setting the time of re-entry at about 5:16 p.m.
In a statement, the JFSCC said it used its Space Surveillance Network sensors as well as orbital analysis tools to determine the time of re-entry, and confirmed its information with its counterparts in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea.
The operation was in line with the space command’s mission “to monitor space and the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that congest it, while at the same time working with allies and partners to enhance spaceflight safety and increase transparency in the space domain,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the JFSCC’s deputy commander and commander of the 14th Air Force.
There were no confirmed sightings or reports of injury. It’s not even certain whether any debris survived the fiery plunge.
Tiangong-1’s descent had been closely monitored for weeks, with the European Space Agency taking a lead role.
China launched Tiangong-1 as an experimental lab in 2011, and it served as an orbital destination for two crewed Chinese space missions in 2012 and 2013.
When Chinese controllers lost contact with the craft in 2016, that left the lab’s orbit subject to a gradual decay in altitude due to atmospheric drag. The precise point of atmospheric re-entry couldn’t be predicted in advance due to the uncontrolled nature of the descent.
Theoretically, it could have come down anywhere over a wide swath of Earth’s surface (although not as far north as Seattle). Its descent over an uninhabited stretch of the South Pacific was one of the best-case scenarios.
— Tony Dunn (@tony873004) April 2, 2018
“The Pacific Ocean is big,” satellite watcher Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a tweet. “Always bet on the Pacific.”
If there were witnesses in the area, they would have seen sparkly shooting stars similar to those that were visible when European and Japanese space transports burned up during atmospheric re-entry. Because today is April Fools’ Day, social-media users had to be especially on guard against faked or recycled photos that purported to show Tiangong-1’s breakup.
A successor spacecraft, Tiangong-2, is still in good shape a year and a half after its launch into orbit.