Earlier this year, Chinese space station Tiangong-1 crashed to Earth uncontrollably, in a ball of fire. Recently, experts were baffled as they saw the successor, Tiangong-2, act strangely.
On 13 June, Tiangong-2 dropped unexpectedly to 183 miles, from the usual orbit of 242 miles. It then returned to its original position, explained the astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Jonathan McDowell. He examined the data from the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command. On his Twitter account, he wrote:
“OK now that’s weird. New orbit data for Tiangong 2 shows it back in the 390 km orbit after spending 10 days in the lower 295 km orbit. Wonder what that was about??”
It Might Have Been a Test
Then, McDowell added that perhaps the Chinese space authorities de-orbited the space station on purpose:
“Possibly just testing out the spacelab’s engine reliability after 2 years in orbit, as part of end-of-life tests?”
Phil Clark is an expert in China’s space activities, explaining in an interview with an online news outlet that: “In part China doesn’t want a repeat of Tiangong-1 going rogue.”
The Tiangong-1 had a malfunction back in 2016, making it lose contact with operators on Earth. Most of the spacecraft burned up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and some of the debris landed in the Pacific, causing no harm. The whole event was highly publicized.
Tiangong-2 is 10.4 meters long, has a weight of 8.6 tons, and it was designed to be a test environment for future technologies that will be used on Tianhe, China’s future modular space station that will weigh up to 100 tons.
The propulsion used for Tiangong-2 could be the same one which they’ll use for Tianhe, things McDowell. This means that the recent dive was conducted to gather important data on the propulsion system.
We can rest easy, now that we know that the Tiangong-2 won’t crash on Earth. However, McDowell said that the spacecraft’s handlers shouldn’t take things for granted, thinking that all’s fine:
“…’Oh, it’s working fine; we’ll keep in orbit for three more years’ — and then discover two years from now that something breaks, and it’s not fine anymore.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.