Chinese Satellite Burns Up In Descent To Earth

Chinese satellite Tiangong 1 re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere Sunday night. The spacecraft made its descent at around 8:16PM ET on April 1st. Most of the material comprising the 8.5-ton satellite burned up over the central South Pacific, according to Chinese space authorities.

Officials at the Joint Force Space Component Command said that the reentry was confirmed “through coordination with counterparts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom”. Based on Tiangong 1’s orbit, it was predicted to come to Earth somewhere between latitudes of 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south.

Launched in 2011, Tiangong 1 was China’s first space station. The station, whose name translates as “Heavenly Palace,” had two crewed missions with its last crew departing in 2013. Over the years, the space station has been orbiting gradually closer and closer to Earth on its own. Before its descent, the space station was orbiting in lower Earth orbit at about 17,000 miles per hour.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office says the falling spacecraft posed only a slight risk to people and property on the ground. Based on its size, only about 10 percent of the spacecraft was likely survive being burned up on re-entry. The Earth is mostly covered in ocean and most of our planet’s land is unpopulated. The chances of anyone on Earth being hit by debris was considered to be less than one in a trillion.

Debris from satellites, space launches and the International Space Station enters the atmosphere every few months. Only one person is known to have been hit by falling space debris from a manmade aircraft. American Lottie Williams was struck, but not injured, by a falling piece of a U.S. Delta II rocket in Oklahoma in 1997.

On Friday, the Aerospace Corp. predicted the debris would most likely descend into the Pacific Ocean. However, the Aerospace Corp. also said it could land in the U.S. along a strip of ground that includes the southern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center as a precaution to monitor the station and coordinate an emergency response if necessary.