China’s ‘Heavenly Palace’ space lab returns to Earth in fiery finale

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The 8.5-ton, 40-foot Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace," was launched in September 2011.

BEIJING — It was an uneventful end to what was once one of China’s highest profile space projects.

The Tiangong-1 space lab re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere Monday morning, landing in the middle of the South Pacific, China Manned Space Agency said.

“Most parts were burned up in the re-entry process,” it added.

The space lab, whose name translates to “Heavenly Palace”, was launched in September 2011 as a prototype for China’s ultimate space goal: a permanent space station is expected to launch around 2022.

Its demise captured public attention in recent weeks, as scientists around the world tracked its uncontrolled descent.

“It did exactly what it was expected to do; the predictions, at least the past 24 hours’ ones, were spot on; and as expected it fell somewhere empty and did no damage,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

McDowell said there was unlikely to be any amateur images of the vessel’s re-entry given it was daytime in the Pacific when it crashed to Earth. Scientists had earlier said it might be possible to see the spacecraft burn up in a “series of fireballs streaking across the sky.”

It landed around 8.15 a.m. Monday local time (8:15 p.m. ET Sunday), China’s Manned Space Agency said.

The Tiangong-1 was last used by astronauts in 2013, but the Chinese government told the United Nations in May 2017 it had “ceased functioning” in March 2016, without saying exactly why.

The incident was embarrassing for China’s space program but hasn’t delayed its progress. In September 2016, China launched its second space lab, Tiangong-2.

While it’s not uncommon for debris such as satellites or spent rocket stages to fall to Earth, large vessels capable of supporting human life are rarer.

NASA’s first space station, Skylab, fell to Earth in an out-of-control re-entry in 1979, burning up harmlessly in the process.

The last space outpost to drop was Russia’s 135-ton Mir station in 2001, which made a controlled landing with most parts breaking up in the atmosphere.

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