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The big picture on China's space station that fell out of the sky

Tiangong-1 astronauts
Chinese students get a live lesson from astronauts on board Tiangong-1 in 2013. Photo: STR / AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday night, Tiangong-1, China's first space station, crashed into the South Pacific Ocean, ending its 7-year orbit around the Earth. The 19,000-pound structure hasn't been visited by humans since 2013, and Beijing hasn't been able to communicate with it since 2016 — but its life and death tell the story of China's vision to conquer space.

The big picture: Tiangong-1 represented a slew of firsts for the Chinese space program. Its seven years among the stars were the culmination of the first phase of China's push to become an superpower in space.

What to watch: In the 1970s and 1980s, China's space program was virtually non-existent. Tiangong-1 is the result of ramped-up spending on space ambitions that began in the 1990s, Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist, tells Axios. China is now one of the four big international players in space, alongside the United States, Russia and Europe. In the next two decades, look for China to spend even more to increase its presence.

QuoteChina has been going through the list of all the space firsts that happened in the Cold War and ticking them off. Tiangong was one of those steps.
— Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell

A brief timeline

  • September 2011: China launches Tiangong-1. The name of the station means "Heavenly Palace" in Mandarin.
  • June 2012: Shenzhou 9, the first of two manned missions to dock at Tiangong-1, launches with Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, on board.
  • June 2013: A second mission, Shenzhou 10, launches to complete China's first orbital maintenance operation.
  • December 2015: Tiangong-1 begins falling toward Earth.
  • September 2016: Chinese officials announce that they have lost communication with the falling structure, dubbing it an "out-of-control space station." Some are concerned that huge pieces of space debris will hit a populated area of the planet, but experts agree it's unlikely that will happen.
  • September 2016: China launches its second space station, Tiangong-2.
  • April 2018: Tiangong-1 reenters Earth's atmosphere and impacts the Pacific Ocean, northwest of Tahiti.

The next steps

  • With Tiangong-1, China showed it could keep humans alive in space for short periods of time and maintain a reusable orbital space lab. Tiangong-2 is the next phase: China will send re-supplying missions to the astronauts on board the station and re-fuel the vehicle. This will allow the Chinese to conduct expeditions in space of up to 6 months, McDowell says.
  • Once Beijing ticks that box, it'll launch Tianhe — the core module for a Chinese Space Station with multiple modules that can approach the capabilities of the International Space Station. The U.S. has historically kept China out of the ISS, and Tianhe is Beijing's response.
  • This space station won't match the size and capabilities of the ISS, but it could become the space station after the ISS — which is nearing the end of its life with a scheduled lifespan through 2028 — is brought down in the next decade, says McDowell.

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