(MENAFN – The Conversation) China launched the second vehicle in its Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) program to build a space station in early September. Despite the success of the launch, the announcement was overshadowed by the realization that the Tiangong-1 prototype module, which should always be replaced, is out of control and is likely to crash back to Earth in late 2017. 19659002] The Chinese Space Agency announced in 2007 its plans to build a space station and has since made great strides towards its goal. Tiangong-1 was unmanned, but was involved in three separate docking events with the Shenzhou transport ship. In Shenzhou 9 and 1
Tiangong-1 worked for his full two-year lifespan. The original program indicated it would undergo a scheduled de-orbiting operation prior to controlled re-entry into the earth. The operation was extended for another two years. There were no additional trips to the spaceship, and there was no news of what the purpose of his extended life was – apart from a test of the space capability of components.
Tiangong-1. TMRO / youtube, CC BY
In March 2016, the Chinese Space Agency announced that Tiangong-1 had reached the end of its life and lost communication links with the satellite. In mid-September, the office of the Chinese manned space agency (CMSE) confirmed that they were no longer able to control the orbit of the satellite.
Calculation of Risks
The announcement of CMSE did not come as a surprise to satellite specialists: all spacecraft in orbit around Earth are being tracked, both by government agencies and by enthusiasts in the public eye. Since the beginning of the year, it was clear that Tiangong-1 was not following the intended trajectory – and he is estimated to fall to Earth in 2017. Although the de-orbit of the spaceship will not be controlled according to CMSE, it will burn in the Earth's atmosphere and there is little chance of burning debris falling into populated areas.
This assurance was not accepted without comment. It is predicted that debris will land somewhere between 43 ° north and 43 ° north south of the equator, a large part of the globe where nearly 90% of people live. The likelihood that someone will be hit is very low, but the likelihood of being hit is relatively high, about 1: 3,200. Eight tons of burning metal will certainly be visible in the sky too – and many observers will follow the spacecraft, even though its last entry point will not be known until entry occurs.
That is, in the past, we have survived much larger objects that fell to the ground. The 150-ton MIR space station burned over the Pacific in 2001. This did not harm anyone, but there were only a few fragments. Likewise, the 77-ton Skylab returned in 1979 across the Indian Ocean without causing any damage.
A problem highlighted by Tiangong-1 is the Chinese space program, which operates almost completely independently of other space agencies. While it is often good to have competition – because that drives innovation and performance – there are areas where international collaboration is important. Although international cooperation may not have prevented the problems with Tiangong 1, a better assessment of the technical developments, including communication made by all users of the space environment, can only contribute to increasing the technical progress of all. Big collaborations are likely to cause fewer problems, and if there is a problem, collaboration know-how can help make it easier to solve.
We survived MIR Crashing – and it was much bigger. NASA
There is an indication of one of the great achievements of the International Space Station in its name. Although US-Russia political relations are sometimes chilly, the ISS functions as an important diplomatic link between the two nations. It would be wonderful if a similar bridge could be built with China. Unfortunately, a 2011 US Congress decree banned US scientists from working bilaterally with their Chinese counterparts, and it would require an intervention by the President to put it aside. But the political situation in the US currently indicates that such intervention is unlikely in the near future.
However, there is hope that the European Space Agency and RosCosmos (the Russian Space Agency) could facilitate China's access to the ISS: a cooperation agreement between ESA and the CSA signed in 2014 set up several working groups to explore areas of common interest the space agencies. If one of the Schenzhou spacecraft servicing the Tiangong-1 space station could dock at the ISS (through agreement with ESA and RosCosmos), the scientific and technical achievement could pave the way for diplomatic and political negotiations.
Another problem raised by the incident is the much discussed issue of who owns space. Who is responsible if something goes wrong? The bottom line, of course, is who pays? The United Nations has an office for space affairs in which space specialists have contracts to cover such contingencies – but these are broadly designed to cover government responsibility. But as space becomes more accessible and tourism and resource exploitation, led by private companies, are approaching reality, existing laws and treaties are inadequate. It is certainly time for a comprehensive reassessment of space policy in such a way that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is regularly reviewed.
Let's hope that the prospect of burning Tiangong-1 debris on Earth will usher in a new field of space agency collaboration, a new set of space law deals and a real perspective for truly international space exploration.
- International space station space debris space exploration Chinese space station Tiangong