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Lessons from Tiangong 1
by Morris Jones for SpaceDaily
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Apr 08, 2016

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The recent telemetry failure from China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory has lessons for the whole space community. This analyst has previously reported on the issue of Tiangong 1's eventual uncontrolled re-entry, which will happen at a time and a place that cannot be exactly predicted right now. Tiangong 1's return is another hard lesson in the broader issue of re-entering spacecraft. Putting it bluntly, the whole space community needs to take this problem more seriously before we experience real tragedy.

Technical solutions are needed, but we also need to change attitudes and policies. There seems to be too much indifference and complacency within spaceflight on this subject, largely because most re-entries create no problems. This analyst calls upon educators and the younger upcoming generation of space engineers to pay closer attention to the subject. It could require a generational change to produce any real improvements in attitudes and actions.

That's probably the biggest lesson from the failure of Tiangong 1, but there are others. For China, the failure produces hard technical data on the longevity of Tiangong's sub-systems. This analyst has previously noted that leaving Tiangong 1 in orbit for an extended period was partially an engineering test. Much of the gear on board this module is probably destined to re-appear on the Chinese Space Station, which is expected to function for much longer than this small laboratory.

We don't know how Tiangong's various parts have fared over the years, but the failure of the telemetry system is critical. China now knows roughly how long this system can function, although testing just one spacecraft doesn't give enough data points for calculating a good mean time between failures.

Clearly, China will need to reconsider the reliability and longevity of some of these components. In turn, this could lead to more testing and re-designs. The biggest impact could be delays to the eventual launch of the Chinese Space Station, which has been seems to have been fast-tracked in recent times.

Of course, the failure of the telemetry could have been caused by the failure of other components that assist in telemetry, such as power systems or computers. We don't know if these failed, and it isn't clear if the Chinese themselves know. There will be much to reconstruct based on whatever data China gathered before the failure.

The failure of Tiangong 1 seems to have caught the Chinese by surprise. It suggests that something failed suddenly, with no prior warning. Otherwise, China probably would have taken steps to safely de-orbit the module before it became a rogue spacecraft. This is also a useful lesson. Perhaps some sort of back-up system could be necessary for future missions.

Right now, we have no signs that the launch of Tiangong 2, expected late this year, will be affected. But that could change. China may wish to replace some components. In any case, it seems clear that a Tiangong module can function well enough to support short crew expeditions, assuming they are launched within a year of the module itself.

One way to gather more data before the Chinese Space Station is launched could be a reshuffle of the Tiangong laboratory program. This was originally expected to include three Tiangong laboratories, gradually growing in sophistication. The third Tiangong seemed to have been deleted from the program to allow China to rush the Chinese Space Station into operation.

China may now choose to bring Tiangong 3 back into its plans. This could allow new components to be tested for an extended period on an actual space mission. China may decide to not even launch crew expeditions to the module. It could simply be an engineering test.

China has released no further information on Tiangong 1 or any responses since the initial announcement in March. There's probably nothing else to say right now. But lessons need to be drawn from this unexpected problem.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for spacedaily.com since 1999. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.

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