New ‘Selfie’ MicroSatellite Captures Images of Chinese Space Station

Here’s a great new view of China’s Tiangong II space station, taken by a new ‘selfie’ satellite. The Banxing-2 satellite is about the size of a desktop printer and was released from the station on Sunday. It has been nicknamed the “Selfie Stick” by Chinese officials and is taking pictures of the station and the docked Shenzhou XI spacecraft. The Chinese astronauts who boarded the station last week aren’t just joining the selfie craze; the 25 megapixel camera with wide-angle and infrared imagers has a specific job.

“The companion satellite monitors the conditions of Tiangong II and Shenzhou XI all the time, which is helpful in detecting failures,” said Chen Hongyu, chief engineer of the satellite program and a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Micro-satellite Innovation Institute.

The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.
The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.

The microsatellite as three solar panels, so can generate enough power to adjust its orbit to shoot pictures of the lab and spacecraft. Its predecessor, Banxing-1, accomplished the same mission for Shenzhou VII in 2008. The Chinese Academy of Sciences says the new model is smaller and has a higher capacity.

Now well into their 30-day mission, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong boarded China’s second version of its “Heavenly Palace” last week. They launched Monday, October 17 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on a Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou-11 completed a fully automated approach and docking to Tiangong-2 on Tuesday.

During their mission, the two crew members will perform experiments from 14 different areas including biology, space life science and technological demonstrations. They have set up plant cultivation and growing experiments and have six silkworms on board for a student-based study to see how silkworms produce silk in microgravity. The crew is also doing medical testing on themselves using Tiangong II’s on board ultrasound equipment to scan their cardiovascular and pulmonary systems. They’ll also be checking for bone and muscle degradation and track any changes to their eyesight. NASA and ESA has discovered that the majority of astronauts doing long-duration space flights on the International Space Station have suffered various kinds of vision problems while in space, or upon their return.

This 30-day medium duration mission is China’s longest space mission to date, and the main task of the Tiangong crew is to help prepare for longer future missions on a larger, modular space station that, according to reports, China hopes to launch by 2018.

Further reading: Chinese Academy of Sciences, Spaceflight 101.

How To See the Doomed Tiangong-1 Chinese Space Station

China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, is expected to fall to Earth sometime in late 2017. We’ve known for several months that the orbital demise of the 8-metric ton space station was only a matter of time. But Chinese space agency officials recently confirmed that they have lost telemetry with the space station and can no longer control its orbit. This means its re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere will be uncontrolled.

Despite sensational headlines this past week (and earlier this year) about Tiangong-1 exploding and raining down molten metal, the risk is quite low that people on Earth will be in danger. Any remaining debris that doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere has a high chance of falling into an ocean, since two-thirds of Earth’s surface is covered by water.

Artist's illustration of China's 8-ton Tiangong-1 space space station. Credit: CMSE.
Artist’s illustration of China’s 8-ton Tiangong-1 space space station. Credit: CMSE.

While NASA and other space agencies say it’s very hard to compute the overall risk to any individual, it’s been estimated that the odds that you, personally, will be hit by a specific piece of debris are about 1 in several trillion.
But numerically, the chance that one person anywhere in the world might be struck by a any piece of space debris comes out to a chance of 1-in-3,200, said Nick Johnson, chief scientist with NASA’s Orbital Debris during a media teleconference in 2011 when the 6-ton UARS satellite was about to make an uncontrolled reentry.

Johnson also reminded everyone that throughout the entire history of the space age, there have been no reports of anybody in the world being injured or struck by any re-entering debris. Something of this size re-enters the atmosphere every few years, and many are uncontrolled entries. For example, there were the UARS and ROSAT satellites in 2011, GOCE in 2013 and Kosmos 1315 in 2015. All of those re-entered without incident, with some returning so remotely there was no visual evidence of their fall.

Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office, said at a press conference before the launch of the Tiangong-2 space station last week (September 15, 2016) that based on their calculations and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during its fall through the atmosphere. She added that China has always highly valued the management of space debris, and will continue to monitor Tiangong-1, and will release a forecast of its falling and report it internationally.

Tiangong-1 as seen in a a composite of three separate exposures taken on May 25, 2013. Credit and copyright: David Murr.
Tiangong-1 as seen in a a composite of three separate exposures taken on May 25, 2013. Credit and copyright: David Murr.

So, all that can be done now is to monitor its position over time to be able to predict when and where it might come down.

Without telemetry, how can we monitor its orbital position?

“Although Tiangong-1 is no longer functioning, keeping track of where it is not a problem,” said Chris Peat, who developed and maintains Heavens-Above.com, a site that provides orbital information to help people observe and track satellites orbiting the Earth.

“Like all other satellites, it is being tracked by the world-wide network of radar installations operated by the US Department of Defense,” Peat explained via email to Universe Today. “They make the orbital elements available to the public via the Space-Track web site and this is where we get the orbital data from in order to make our predictions.”

Peat says they check for new data every 4 hours, and Space-Track updates the orbits of most large objects about once per day.

Since Tiangong-1 is such a large object, Peat said there is no chance that it will be lost by Space-Track before re-entry. Additionally, amateur/hobby observers also make observations of the position of some satellites and calculate their own orbits for them. This is mostly done for classified satellites for which Space-Track does not publish data, and is not really necessary in the case of Tiangong-1, Peat said.

But with uncertainties of when and where this 8-ton (7.3 metric tons) vehicle will come back to Earth, you can bet that the amateur observing community will keep an eye on it.

First image of a solar transit of Tiangong-1, the first module of the Chinese space station, taken from Southern France on May 11th 2012. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.
First image of a solar transit of Tiangong-1, the first module of the Chinese space station, taken from Southern France on May 11th 2012. Credit: Thierry Legault. Used by permission.

“As it gets lower and enters the denser atmosphere, it will be subject to greater perturbations, but I do not expect Space-Track to lose it because it is so large,” Peat said. “It will actually become brighter and easier to see as it gets lower.”

If you want to watch for it yourself, Heavens-Above provides tracking information anywhere around the world. Just input your specific location and click on “Tiangong-1,” listed under “Satellites.” Heavens-Above (they also have an app) is great for being able to see satellites like the International Space Station and Hubble, as well as seeing astronomical objects like planets and asteroids. Heavens-Above also has an interactive sky chart.

Additionally, Marco Di Lorenzo on the Alive Universe website is monitoring Tiangong-1’s orbit, showing the orbital decay over time. He will be updating its status up through re-entry.

But despite being able to track Tiangong-1, as well as knowing its location and orbit is not the same as being able to say exactly when and where it will fall to Earth.

“This is a notoriously difficult task,” Peat said and even a day before re-entry, the estimated re-entry point will still be uncertain by many thousands of kilometers. The Russian Mir space station was brought down in a controlled manner using its propulsion system to re-enter over the South Pacific, but Tiangong-1 is no longer functioning so the re-entry point cannot be influenced by ground controllers.”

Graphic shows the procedure of Shenzhou-8 spacecraft docking with Tiangong-1 space lab module on Nov. 3, 2011. (Xinhua/Lu Zhe)
Graphic shows the procedure of Shenzhou-8 spacecraft docking with Tiangong-1 space lab module on Nov. 3, 2011. (Xinhua/Lu Zhe)

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who also monitors objects in orbit, said via Twitter that Tiangong-1’s reentry could be anywhere between the latitudes of 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South, which is a rather large area on our planet and are the latitudes where a majority of Earth’s population resides. That’s not especially comforting, but remember, the odds are in your favor.

This plot shows the orbital height of the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 over the last year. It's orbit was boosted in mid-December 2015. Credit: Chris Peat/Heavens-Above.com.
This plot shows the orbital height of the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 over the last year. It’s orbit was boosted in mid-December 2015. Credit: Chris Peat/Heavens-Above.com.

Peat now has a page on Heavens-Above showing the orbital height of Tiangong-1 and you can see how the height is reducing as a function of time. It shows there was an orbital boost in December 2015.

Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011 and ended its functional life in March this year, when it had “comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission,” Chinese officials said. It was operational for four and a half years, which is two and a half years longer than its designed life. It was visited by the un-crewed Shenzhou-8 in 2011, and the crewed missions of Shenzhou-9 in 2012 and Shenzhou-10 in 2013. It also was used for Earth observation and studying the space environment, according to CMSE.

If you happen to capture an image of Tiangong-1, please add it to Universe Today’s Flickr pool page.

New Podcast Series: Space Stations

Sometimes a trilogy needs four parts! The Astronomy Cast team of Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay have taken a look at the history and modern era of space stations, as well as peering into the future at some space station concepts still in the works. You can listen to this four-part series at the Astronomy Cast website, or at the links below:

Ep. 296: Space Stations, Part 1 — Salyut and Skylab

Ep. 297: Space Stations, Part 2 — Mir

Ep. 298: Space Stations, Part 3 — International Space Station

Ep. 299: Space Stations, Part 4 — Future Space Stations

Or subscribe to: astronomycast.com/podcast.xml with your podcatching software.

And the podcast is also available as a video, as Fraser and Pamela now record Astronomy Cast as part of a Google+ Hangout. You can see their latest Hangouts at the Astronomy Cast YouTube page. They record most Mondays at 18:00 UTC (3:00 PM EDT, 12:00 PDT) at Google+.

China set to ‘Leap Forward in Space’ as Tiangong 1 Rolls to Launch Pad

[/caption]
China’s human spaceflight program is gearing up to take a highly significant “Leap forward in Space” after their “Tiangong 1” prototype space station was rolled out to the remote Gobi desert launch pad at the countries Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center in Gansu Province in anticipation of blastoff sometime this week.

Space officials from the Chinese Manned Space Engineering Office have now confirmed that liftoff of the 8.5 ton Tiangong 1 human rated module atop a Long March CZ-IIF booster rocket is slated to take place during a launch window that extends from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30. The launch was delayed a few days after the recent launch failure of a similar Chinese rocket, the Long March IIC.

China’s burgeoning space efforts come directly on the heels of the voluntary US shutdown of the Space Shuttle program, thereby dismantling all US capability to launch humans into space from American soil for several years until about 2014 at a minimum.

The US manned spaceflight capability gap will be stretched out even further if NASA’s budget for commercial space taxis and the newly proposed SLS launch system is cut by political leaders in Washington, DC.

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F launch vehicle combination is slowly rolling out of the VAB facility

On Sept. 20, the integrated Long March rocket and Tiangong module were wheeled out of China’s VAB while sitting on top of the Mobile Launch Platform and transferred to the launch gantry at Jiuguan.

The goal of the Tiangong 1 mission is to carry out China’s first human spaceflight related rendezvous and docking mission and to demonstrate that Chinese space engineers have mastered the complicated technology required for a successful outcome.

These skills are akin in complexity to NASA’s Gemini manned program of the 1960’s which paved the way for NASA’s Apollo missions and led directly to the first manned landing on the moon in 1969 by Apollo 11.

Chinas stated goal is to construct a 60 ton Skylab sized space station in earth orbit by 2020.

Check out this CCTV video for further details and imagery of the Chinese space hardware which shows the how China will expand the reach and influence of their space program.

View this Chinese video from NDTV for a glimpse at Chinas long range Space Station plans.

The 40 foot long Tiangong 1 space platform is unmanned and will serve as the docking target for China’s manned Shenzhou capsules in a series of stepping stone learning flights. It is solar powered and equipped to operate in a man-tended mode for short duration missions and in an unmanned mode over the long term.

The initial rendezvous and docking mission will be conducted by the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft, which will fly in an unmanned configuration for the first docking test. Shenzhou 8 is scheduled to soar to space before the end of 2011.

If successful, China plans to quickly follow up with the launch of two manned Shenzhou flights to dock at Tiangong 1 during 2012 – namely Shenzhou 9 & Shenzhou 10.

The multi astronaut chinese crews would float into Tiangong 1 and remain on board for a short duration period of a few days or weeks. The crew would conduct medical, space science and technology tests and experiments.

China’s first female astronaut may be selected to fly as a crew member on one of the two Shenzhou flights in 2012.

Meanwhile, all American astronauts will be completely dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for trips to the International Space Station. Russia is still working to correct the third stage malfunction which doomed the recent Progress cargo resupply launch and put a halt to Soyuz launches.

Engineers and technicians are in the process of checking out all Tiangong 1 systems and preliminary weather reports from Chinese media appear favorable for launch.

Shenzhou 8 has also been delivered to the Jinquan launch complex for check out of all systems

Get set for China’s attempt at a ‘Space Spectacular’

The integrated Tiangong 1 spacecraft and CZ-2F combination is transferring to the launch site