A little over a year after its first space station crashed down over the Pacific Ocean, China has deorbited its second, the Tiangong-2. It entered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up over the South Pacific ocean on Friday.
Unlike the Tiangong-1 station’s uncontrolled descent, China deliberately brought the Tiangong-2 down to Earth in a controlled fashion over the Pacific, where there wasn’t any risk of it hitting people.
China launched the space station in September 2016, and quickly sent up a pair of taikonauts, Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong, to conduct a variety of experiments on a 30 day mission. China launched a second, uncrewed mission in April 2017 to refuel the station to test out a new spacecraft and conduct some “robotic demonstrations.” That was the last mission to the station, which was never intended as a permanent habitat in orbit.
While the station is no longer in orbit, it proved to be a useful project for China, which has been steadily working to gain a better foothold in space in the last decade. Along with the Tiangong-1, the two stations provided the Chinese space program with valuable experience in orbit. They demonstrated not only that they could launch and sustain hardware in space, but also dock crewed and uncrewed vehicles to them — vital lessons for any human spaceflight program. China had proposed a third station, the Tiangong-3, but it was never constructed or launched.
Tiangong-2’s deorbiting doesn’t mean that China’s ambitions in orbit are over. The country is planning on constructing another station in orbit, with the first section, the Tianhe-1 module, scheduled for launch in 2020.