BEIJING • A defunct Chinese space laboratory disintegrated under intense heat as it hurtled through Earth's atmosphere yesterday and plunged into a watery grave in the South Pacific, Chinese officials said.
The Tiangong-1 mostly burned up above the vast ocean's central region at 8.15am Beijing time, said the China Manned Space Engineering Office. There was no immediate confirmation of the final resting place of any remaining debris.
"Most of the parts burned up and disappeared," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters, adding that China kept the United Nations space agency informed about the situation.
"According to my knowledge, we have not found any harm to the Earth's surface," he said.
Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace", was placed into orbit in September 2011, acting as a testing ground for China's efforts to put a permanent space station into orbit around 2022. It ceased functioning in 2016.
Space officials had said that the 10.4m-long craft's atmospheric disintegration would offer a splendid show akin to a meteor shower. But the remote location likely deprived stargazers of the spectacle.
Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said the module zoomed over Pyongyang in North Korea and the Japanese city of Kyoto during daylight hours, reducing the odds of glimpsing it before it hit the Pacific.
Space officials had warned that knowing the exact location of the re-entry would not be possible until shortly before it happened. The difficulties seemed to wrong-foot Chinese space scientists - just moments before announcing that the craft would come down over the Pacific, they had said it would make its re-entry over Sao Paulo and head towards the Atlantic Ocean.
The United States military's network of radars and sensors also confirmed that Tiangong-1 had re-entered over the Pacific, but a minute after the Chinese estimate.
Dr McDowell said the China space agency's initial estimate for re-entry was off as it "guessed wrong" about the time the space lab would leave its orbital path.
The European Space Agency had described the probability of someone being hit by debris from Tiangong-1 as "10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning".
The module - which was used to practise complicated manual and automatic docking techniques - was originally intended to be used for just two years, but ended up serving considerably longer.
It hosted Chinese astronauts on several occasions as they performed experiments and even taught a class that was broadcast in schools across the country.
Ms Huang Weifen, deputy chief designer of the Astronaut Centre of China, said that the module provided "precious experience" for building a space station, Xinhua news agency reported.
In an online article, she said the lab achieved many firsts for Beijing's space programme - the first manual docking of a spacecraft, the first flight by a female astronaut and the first lesson from orbit.
Tiangong-1 had been slated for a controlled re-entry but ceased functioning in March 2016.
A Chinese space-flight engineer denied earlier this year that the lab was out of control. An expert interviewed by nationalist tabloid Global Times said it "re-entered the atmosphere because it ran out of fuel, not because it's out of control".
China in 2003 became the third country able to launch humans into space, following the former Soviet Union and the United States.
China sent another space lab, Tiangong-2, into orbit in September 2016. It also plans to send a manned mission to the moon in the future.