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  1. ITV Report

China's Tiangong-1 space station burns up over South Pacific

This radar image from the Fraunhofer Institute shows the shape of China's falling space station Tiangong-1 Credit: AP

A defunct Chinese space lab came to a fiery end over the South Pacific in the early hours of Monday morning.

The 8.5 tonne Tiangong-1 space station mostly burned up over the vast ocean after re-entering Earth's atmosphere at around 1.15am.

Along with scientists at China's space agency, teams from around the world closely monitored the lab's final minutes as it screamed down from the heavens.

Experts said the likelihood of debris striking anyone on the ground was "extremely small", however precisely where the torched remains would land was unknown.

The chance of being hit by the debris was considered less than one in a trillion, and on average, one inert satellite drops into our atmosphere and burns up every week.

Estimates of when and where the re-entry would begin also varied.

With accommodation for two astronauts, China's first space station - whose name means 'heavenly palace' - blasted into orbit aboard a Long March rocket in 2011.

China launched Tiangong-1 in 2011. Credit: AP

The last crew left in 2013 and Tiangong 1 - translated as Celestial Palace 1 - reached the end of its operational life in 2016, gradually getting closer to Earth ever since.

How common is space debris?

  • 1979 – America’s 77-tonne-Skylab space station crashed near Perth, Australia resulting in the United States being fined $400 for littering.
  • 1997 – American Lottie Williams was struck by a falling piece of the U.S. Delta II rocket while she exercised in an Oklahoma Park.
  • 2003 – 80,000 pieces of debris fell over parts of the southern United States when the Columbia space shuttle broke up on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts.
  • 2011 – Debris from Nasa’s 6-tonne Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite fell into the Pacific Ocean causing no injuries.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office said that most of the 34ft-long, 11ft-wide space station's components were "ablated" during re-entry.

The agency said: "Through monitoring and analysis by Beijing Aerospace Control Centre and related agencies, Tiangong 1 re-entered the atmosphere at about 8.15am, 2 April, Beijing time (1.15am GMT).

"The re-entry falling area is located in the central region of the South Pacific. Most of the devices were ablated during the re-entry process."

The US Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC) also confirmed the Tiangong 1 had re-entered the atmosphere over the South Pacific after coordinating with counterparts in the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia.

From the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Major General Stephen Whiting said in a statement: "The JFSCC works alongside government, industry and international partners to track and report re-entries... because the space domain is vital to our shared international security interest.

"One of our missions, which we remain focused on, is to monitor space and the tens of thousands of pieces of debris that congest it, while at the same time working with allies and partners to enhance spaceflight safety and increase transparency in the space domain."