- The Chinese space stationTiangong-1 is in its final hours and will most likely fall to Earth early in the morning on April 1.
- Maximilian Teodorescu, a researcher from Romania, was able to capture images of Tiangong-1 passing in front of the sun.
- It will likely be one of the last times we see Tiangong-1 – at least, aside from debris that is likely to survive the burn and land on Earth.
The bus-sized Chinese space station Tiangong-1, known as “Heavenly Palace,” is whipping around our planet in the final hours before it burns into Earth’s atmosphere. In the very near future, it will break up, with some of its debris likely falling to Earth.
In these final hours, Maximilian Teodorescu, a scientific researcher with the National Institute for Lasers and Plasma in Bucharest, Romania, was able to photograph Tiangong-1 as it made a transit passing in front of the sun.
In Teodorescu’s photo above, you can see the space station’s transit.
This photo is likely one of the last times Tiangong-1 will be seen before its journey, which began when it was launched in 2011, comes to an end on or around Easter Sunday (April 1).
Teodorescu told Business Insider that he’s been interested in astronomy for about two decades now. His interest starting with science fiction before he moved on to real-life space programs.
“It is fascinating still for me to know that humans are trying to get out of their perfect habitat down here on Earth and try to find other habitable worlds in our Solar System and beyond. It’s perhaps the most important era of the Human Civilisation,” Teodorescu said in an email.
“And the still small steps we take, like the ISS and other space stations, are proof that this part of our evolution is occurring right now. And I must take advantage of this moment, and at least image these technical marvels, if not be a part of the programs. This is why I try to catch any close transit in front of the Moon or Sun whenever I can.”
Follow the station’s pass-by in the GIF below.
A space station’s end
But at the moment, it’s just one of about 23,000 other human-made objects larger than a softball zooming around the planet.
China’s last crewed visit to the two-room, 9.4-ton vessel, was in June of 2013. The Chinese program lost touch with Tiangong-1 – its first space station – in March of 2016. The station is now losing forward speed, which means that gravity is pulling it towards Earth faster and faster, with the air around it too thin to slow it down.
But as it enters the atmosphere, the situation will change.
When the spacecraft falls into thicker air, the drag will begin to rip off solar panels, antennas, and other loosely attached pieces. Superheated plasma will heat the vessel to thousands of degrees, melting and disintegrating it.
Little will survive. Even though there are layers of protective material and substances like titanium on board, some parts, including potentially re-usable gear and hardware, are likely to survive re-entry.
It’s possible there will be a 1,000 mile-footprint of debris, Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer who specialises in atmospheric reentry, told Business Insider.
It’s more likely than anything else that most debris will fall into the ocean, which covers 71% of Earth’s surface. The chances of a piece hitting a person “is about 1 million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot,” according to The Aerospace Corp., where Ailor works.
“It’s not impossible, but since the beginning of the space age… a woman who was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma is the only one we’re aware of who’s been touched by a piece of space debris,” Ailor said.