<< view all Insights

GCSP’s Consultant in Space Security, Laurent Muhlematter, explains ‘The Lost Space Station'

Tiangong-1: the lost Chinese space station

A Chinese space station, launched in 2012, had an electrical failure and lost communication in 2016.

The Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace 1) was initially designed to be the first Chinese space station to cooperate with the International Space Station, European Space Agency, NASA and Roscosmos. This cooperation had yet to happen due to previous political issues between the US and China.

Tiangong1 weighs 8.2 tons and has the ability to accommodate 2-3 Taikonauts (Chinese astronauts). This element orbits at 250 km above Earth’s surface with an orbit inclination of 50°, positioning the station over heavily populated areas of the Earth.

There have been two manned missions to the Tiangong-1:

  1. Shenzhou-9 launched on 16 June, 2012, with three astronauts, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang.
  2. Shenzhou-10 launched on 11 June, 2013, also with three astronauts, which completed the first Chinese orbital maintenance. It was also the last manned mission which departed from the Tiangong-1 in June 2013.

On 21 March, 2016, Chinese news agency, Xinhuanet, reported that telemetry services with the Tiangong-1 had ceased. Xinhuanet stated, ‘After an operational orbit of 1,630 days, China's first space lab Tiangong-1 terminated its data service.’ The agency added, ‘The functions of the space laboratory and target orbiter have been disabled after an extended service period of about two and a half years.’

Now, this space station is planned to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, somewhere around 43° North and 43° South. Due to the size of the module, experts can expect that some debris will survive atmospheric re-entry, ‘falling out of the sky’ over populated areas such as the North of Spain, Turkey, China, USA or Argentina, south of Australia.

For the purists, the specific energy of an orbital object at 200km altitude is 34,000 times greater than a car traveling at 160km/h. Experts assume that between 70 and 90 percent of the object mass will not reach the ground[1], due to the enormous amount of its specific energy.

One of the questions experts ask is: how can we avoid a similar disaster in the near future?

Few options exist:

  1. Developing an ASAT (anti-satellite) system, able to destroy the station at a very low altitude. This can be done by reducing the amount of debris in LEO[2]. Unfortunately, this system will never be able to avoid certain debris, therefore re-entering above a populated area.
  2. Using the automatic rendezvous systems develop by the US DARPA[3]. This system will provide a means of capturing the station at a high altitude and either recharge the batteries or re-orientate the station for a controlled re-entry above the SPOUA[4].
  3. The satellite landing area, which is located in the South Pacific Ocean, is an area were all satellites are orientated and are programmed to crash on Earth, due to the low probability of injuring people.

 

Laurent Muhlematter is a consultant in Outer Space Security for the GCSP.

 

[1] Pollution spatiale, Christophe Bonnal, Belin, p70

[2] Low Earth Orbit: altitude between 200 kilometers and 1000 kilometers

[3] www.darpa.com

[4] SPOOA: South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area (South 29° and60° and East 185° and 275°