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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.

China 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.
Go deeper

Go deeper

39 mins ago - World

Sudan's military places civilian prime minister under house arrest

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok during a 2020 news conference in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sudan's civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was put under house arrest and several other ministers were also detained Monday in what appears to be a military coup in the country, per local reports.

Why it matters: The arrests of the civilian faction in the Sudanese government came a day after U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman met with the head of the military faction of the Sudanese government General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and warned him against staging a coup.

"Atmospheric river" swings Northern California from drought to flood

Satellite view of the bomb cyclone swirling off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and the atmospheric river affecting California on Oct. 24. Photo: CIRA/RAMMB

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are delivering historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest — triggering widespread power outages and flooding.

Why it matters: The strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is causing Northern California to whiplash from drought to flood.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Saudi dissident claims MBS said he could get "poison ring" to kill king

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Saudi Green Initiative Forum, via video link, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A former senior Saudi intelligence official who worked with the U.S. on counterterrorism alleged to "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast Sunday that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed in 2014 killing the kingdom's then-monarch.

Why it matters: The claim by the exiled Saad al-Jabri, whom Saudi authorities describe as "a discredited former government official," that the crown prince, known as "MBS," allegedly said he could obtain a "ring from Russia" to carry out the attack, is one of several serious but unproven allegations he made on the CBS show.