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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

Tech scrambles to derail inauguration threats

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are sharing more information with law enforcement in a frantic effort to prevent violence around the inauguration, after the government was caught flat-footed by the Capitol siege.

Between the lines: Tech knows it will be held accountable for any further violence that turns out to have been planned online if it doesn't act to stop it.

Dave Lawler, author of World
5 hours ago - World

Uganda's election: Museveni declared winner, Wine claims fraud

Wine rejected the official results of the election. Photo: Sumy Sadruni/AFP via Getty

Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of a sixth presidential term on Saturday, with official results giving him 59% to 35% for Bobi Wine, the singer-turned-opposition leader.

Why it matters: This announcement was predictable, as the election was neither free nor fair and Museveni had no intention of surrendering power after 35 years. But Wine — who posed a strong challenged to Museveni, particularly in urban areas, and was beaten and arrested during the campaign — has said he will present evidence of fraud. The big question is whether he will mobilize mass resistance in the streets.

Off the Rails

Episode 1: A premeditated lie lit the fire

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 1: Trump’s refusal to believe the election results was premeditated. He had heard about the “red mirage” — the likelihood that early vote counts would tip more Republican than the final tallies — and he decided to exploit it.

"Jared, you call the Murdochs! Jason, you call Sammon and Hemmer!”