Tiangong-1 (Chinese: 天宫一号; pinyin: Tiāngōng yīhào; literally: "Heavenly Palace 1" or "Celestial Palace 1") was China's first prototype space station.[9] It orbited Earth from September 2011 to April 2018, serving as both a manned laboratory and an experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities during its two years of active operational life.[10]

Launched unmanned aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket[1] on 29 September 2011,[11] it was the first operational component of the Tiangong program, which aims to place a larger, modular station into orbit by 2023.[10][12] Tiangong-1 was initially projected to be deorbited in 2013,[13] to be replaced over the following decade by the larger Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 modules,[14] but it orbited until 2 April 2018.[3][4][5][15][16]

Tiangong-1 was visited by a series of Shenzhou spacecraft during its two-year operational lifetime. The first of these, the unmanned Shenzhou 8, successfully docked with the module in November 2011,[17][18] while the manned Shenzhou 9 mission docked in June 2012.[19][20][21] A third and final mission to Tiangong-1, the manned Shenzhou 10, docked in June 2013.[22][23][24] The manned missions to Tiangong-1 were notable for including China's first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.[23][25]

On 21 March 2016, after a lifespan extended by two years, the China Manned Space Engineering Office announced that Tiangong-1 had officially ended its service.[26][27] They went on to state that the telemetry link with Tiangong-1 had been lost.[28] A couple of months later, amateur satellite trackers watching Tiangong-1 found that China's space agency had lost control of the station.[28] In September, after conceding they had lost control over the station, officials speculated that the station would re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere late in 2017.[29][30] According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, Tiangong-1 started reentry over the southern Pacific Ocean, northwest of Tahiti, on 2 April 2018 at 00:15 UTC.[4][5][15][16]

Design and development

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) designed Tiangong- 1 as an 8.5-tonne (19,000 lb) "space-laboratory module", capable of supporting the docking of manned and autonomous spacecraft. In 2008, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) released a brief description of Tiangong-1, along with its larger successor modules, Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3. A model of the space station was revealed in the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration program on CCTV on 25 January 2009.[31]

On 29 September 2008, Zhāng Jiànqǐ (張建啟), vice-director of the CMSEO, declared in an interview with China Central Television (CCTV)[32] that Tiangong-1 would be launched in 2010 or 2011. Xinhua later stated that Tiangong-1 would be launched in late 2010, and declared that the renovation of ground equipment was in progress.[33] However, the launch did not ultimately take place until 2011.

By mid-2011, the construction of Tiangong-1 was complete, and its systems and thermal properties were undergoing testing. Testing was also conducted on the Long March 2F carrier rocket on which Tiangong-1 would be launched; technicians undertook particularly extensive safety tests on the rocket in August and September 2011,[11] following the launch failure of a Long March 2C rocket on 18 August.[34]


Tiangong-1 had a pressurised habitable volume of approximately 15 cubic metres (530 cu ft), and used passive APAS-type docking connectors.[35] Structurally, Tiangong-1 was divided into two primary sections: a resource module, which mounted its solar panels and propulsion systems, and a larger, habitable experimental module.[36]

Onboard facilities

Tiangong-1's experimental module was equipped with exercise gear and two sleep stations.[7] The interior walls of the spacecraft had a two-color paint scheme – one color representative of the ground, and the other representative of the sky. This was intended to help the astronauts maintain their orientation in zero gravity.[7] High-resolution interior cameras allowed manned missions to be closely monitored from the ground, and the two sleep stations had individual lighting controls.[37] Toilet facilities and cooking equipment for the manned missions were provided by the docked Shenzhou spacecraft, rather than being integrated into the Tiangong module itself.[37] Similarly, one member of the module's three-person crew slept in the Shenzhou spacecraft, preventing overcrowding.[37]

Mission profile


Tiangong-1 was originally intended to be launched in August 2011, and was delivered to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on 23 July, successfully passing a launch rehearsal test on 17 August.[38] However, following the failed launch of a Long March 2C rocket in August 2011, the launch was postponed. Following an investigation into the August launch failure,[11][39] Tiangong-1's launch was rescheduled for late September 2011,[40] partly to coincide with the Chinese National Day on 1 October.[41]


On 20 September 2011, the spacecraft was again rolled out to Pad 1 of the South Launch Site at Jiuquan in preparation for the rescheduled launch attempt.[42] The launch occurred at 13:16 UTC on 29 September, successfully placing Tiangong-1 into low Earth orbit.[38] Chinese television broadcast the launch animation accompanied by an instrumental version of the American patriotic song America the Beautiful, a choice of music for which it later offered no explanation.[43]

Orbital transfers and testing

On 2 October 2011, Tiangong-1 completed the second of two orbital transfer maneuvers, reaching an apogee altitude of 362 kilometres (225 mi).[44] This was the precursor to a week-long program of orbital testing, conducted from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, to prepare the module for future orbital docking operations.[44] On 10 October, Tiangong-1 released its first orbital photo, showing a view of its outer hull and satellite relay antenna.[45]

Autonomous orbital docking

Diagram of Tiangong-1 (left) docked to a Shenzhou spacecraft (right).

The unmanned Shenzhou 8 mission successfully docked with Tiangong-1 on 2 November 2011 GMT, marking China's first orbital docking.[17] Shenzhou 8 undocked from Tiangong-1 on 14 November, before successfully completing a second rendezvous and docking, thus testing the reusability of the docking system.[18][46][47] Shenzhou 8 deorbited on 17 November 2011, and landed intact in Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia.[48] After the mission, the CNSA reported that Tiangong-1's systems were in optimal condition.[49]

Manned missions


In December 2011, the Tiangong-1 module began automated internal checks for toxic gas, to ensure that its interior would be safe for astronauts to enter.[50] In January 2012, reports emerged alleging that the American X-37B robotic spaceplane was shadowing Tiangong-1 for surveillance purposes.[51] However, former United States Air Force orbital analyst Brian Weeden later refuted this claim, emphasizing that the X-37B occupied a different orbit from Tiangong-1, and would not be able to closely observe the module.[52]

Shenzhou 9

The three members of Shenzhou 9's crew. Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, is shown on the right.

In March 2012, it was reported that China had finished the initial crew selection for the Shenzhou 9 mission. Niu Hongguang, the deputy chief commander of the China Manned Space Engineering Project, stated that Shenzhou 9 would dock with Tiangong-1 before August 2012.[53] The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft was delivered to Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for launch preparations on 9 April 2012,[54] while its Long March 2F carrier rocket arrived a month later on 9 May.[55]

Shenzhou 9 launched successfully on 16 June 2012, carrying with it China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang.[19][21][25][56] The spacecraft docked with Tiangong-1 on 18 June 2012 at 14:07 Beijing time (06:07 GMT; 07:07 BST).[20] After about three hours, when the air pressures inside the two vessels were equalized, mission commander Jing Haipeng entered Tiangong-1.[57] The first docking was entirely computer-controlled, without input from the three astronauts;[20] a second, crew-guided docking was successfully conducted on 24 June 2012 at 12:42 Beijing time.[58] Shenzhou 9 landed safely in Inner Mongolia on 29 June 2012.[59] In August 2012, Shenzhou 9's crew travelled to Hong Kong to discuss their mission with university students.[60]

Shenzhou 10

Map of Tiangong-1's orbits in June 2013.

The manned Shenzhou 10 spacecraft, the final Shenzhou mission to rendezvous with Tiangong-1 before its deorbit, was launched on 11 June 2013.[22][23][61] The launch of Shenzhou 10 was originally planned for earlier in the year, but was delayed to allow the mission to incorporate more complex scientific experiments.[62] The mission's crew included China's second female astronaut, Wang Yaping.[23] Shenzhou 10 docked successfully with Tiangong-1 on 13 June.[24]

On 15 June 2013, the Shenzhou 10 crew completed China's first orbital maintenance operation, replacing Tiangong-1's interior cladding.[63] Additional maintenance work was conducted on the space station's seal rings.[63] On 20 June, Wang Yaping delivered a remote video lecture from orbit to students across China, demonstrating physics in microgravity with her colleagues.[64] On 24 June, CPC general secretary Xi Jinping contacted the astronauts via remote video link to congratulate them.[65] After a series of successful docking tests, Shenzhou 10 undocked and returned safely to Earth on 26 June 2013.[66] With a duration of 15 days, Shenzhou 10 was China's longest manned space mission,[67] until Shenzhou 11's 30-day mission to Tiangong-2 in 2016.[68]


The Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011, with an intended service span of two years. After the last crew departed the module in June 2013, it was put into sleep mode. It was intended that it would remain in orbit for some time, allowing China to collect data on the longevity of key components before being commanded to gradually re-enter the atmosphere. The Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations informed the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space that the Tiangong-1 had ceased functioning on 16 March 2016.[69] On 21 March 2016, the Manned Space Engineering Office announced that they had disabled data service, since the space station had operated two-and-a-half years longer than its intended two-year service plan. According to the office, the space laboratory was under continued and close monitoring until it finally burned up in the Earth's atmosphere during an uncontrolled re-entry.[26][27]


Map showing the probability of re-entry of Tiangong 1 by latitude. Latitudes shaded red were most likely; latitudes shaded green were least likely. Areas outside possible re-entry latitudes are not pictured.[70]

The orbit of Tiangong-1 was decaying gradually, and the space laboratory was predicted to be destroyed upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.[71][72][73]

At the request of China and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), led by the European Space Agency (ESA), conducted an international campaign to monitor the re-entry of Tiangong-1. ESA's Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany hosted and administered the campaign, with participation from other space agencies and organizations including the China National Space Administration, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, and Roscosmos.[74] The IADC predicted that Tiangong-1 would break up during re-entry, but that parts of the station would survive and fall to the Earth's surface, potentially falling across an area thousands of kilometres long and tens of kilometres wide. However, because most of the re-entry area was ocean or uninhabited land, the IADC calculated the odds of a person being hit by falling debris to be "10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning."[70] The IADC's final prediction before re-entry was that Tiangong-1 would re-enter at around 01:00 UTC on 2 April 2018, plus or minus 2 hours, falling somewhere on Earth between 42.8° North and 42.8° South latitudes,[75][76] with the most likely re-entry sites being at the north and south extremes of that range. This is because the station's high-inclination orbit had the smallest north-south speed at the extreme latitudes, and the greatest north-south speed near the Equator.[70]

Independently, the non-profit The Aerospace Corporation's Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies (CORDS) predicted that Tiangong-1 would most likely re-enter the atmosphere around 00:30 UTC on 2 April 2018, plus or minus 1.7 hours. CORDS scientists also predicted that it would re-enter somewhere between the 42.7° North and 42.7° South latitudes, a range that covered two-thirds of the Earth's surface, with a high likelihood of an ocean landing of whatever did not burn up during re-entry.[77] They predicted that if any parts of the station survived re-entry, the small amount of debris would impact the ground over an area a few hundred square kilometers in size.[78] The final prediction of likely areas for debris impact covered southern South America, Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia.[78][79] However, even in those high-probability areas, they still estimated the odds of a person being hit by debris to be "about one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot."[80]

Tiangong-1 reentered the Earth's atmosphere at approximately 00:16 UTC on 2 April 2018 over the South Pacific Ocean at 24°30′S 151°06′W / 24.5°S 151.1°W / -24.5; -151.1.[4][78] According to Chinese state news agency Xinhua, the station mostly burnt up upon re-entry.[81] It was the largest spacecraft to re-enter the atmosphere since Fobos-Grunt in January 2012.[70] This was about 3,600 kilometres (2,200 mi) from Point Nemo, a location often used as a spacecraft cemetery to crash defunct satellites.[82]

Altitude of Tiangong-1 from March 2017[83]
Final orbit above the Pacific Ocean with 10 minute markers

Program developments

Tiangong-1 was designed as a test bed for key technologies later used on another test station called Tiangong-2, which was launched on 15 September 2016.[84] Both experimental space stations are short-lived and meant to test technologies and systems for a permanent future space station called Chinese large modular space station, which is planned to be assembled from 2019 to 2022.[85]

The design of Tianzhou, an automated cargo spacecraft intended to resupply the Chinese large modular space station, is based on Tiangong-1.[14][86]

See also


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External links

  • Media related to Tiangong-1 at Wikimedia Commons