Incredible Tiangong-1 Image Captured as Doomed Chinese Spacecraft Nears Earth Collision

Astronomers from the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy have captured an incredible image of the stricken Chinese space station Tiangong-1 as it makes its final descent towards Earth.

At the time the picture was taken, the spacecraft was about 137 miles above the surface and travelling across a region of the sky occupied by the Virgo constellation at speeds of around 17,400 miles per hour.

Due to its extremely high speed, imaging Tiangong-1 was very challenging to picture, according to the astronomers.

"Capturing the spacecraft was difficult, as it was moving very fast in the sky (18 degrees per minute at the imaging time and getting faster)," Gianluca Masi, who runs the Virtual Telescope Project (VTP), told Newsweek.

"Our robotic telescopes use advanced technology to virtually track any fast-moving object and this was close to their upper limits, but they did a superb job," he said.

The image is a single, 2-second exposure taken from a live feed provided by a robotic telescope at Tenagra Observatories in Arizona, which the VTP astronomers controlled remotely.

An image of the Tiangong-1 Chinese space station captured by astronomers at the Virtual Telescope Project on 28 March, 2018. Gianluca Masi/Michael Schwartz

Masi said pointing and tracking fast-moving objects in Earth's orbit such as Tiangong-1 is something that few observatories can do.

"We managed to do something honestly out of this world: Imaging the Tiangong-1 Chinese space station during one of its final passes across the stars, before it will burn in the atmosphere," Masi wrote on the VTP Website. This is "an image which we consider historic".

The spacecraft is expected to reenter the atmosphere sometime around April 1, according to Masi, meaning this may well be the last image to be taken of it.

Experts think the majority of the space station will burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. There is a small chance that some debris will reach the surface, however, it is extremely unlikely to fall on land, and even if it does, the chances of someone being struck are miniscule.

The space lab, which launched in 2011, was originally intended to be deorbited in 2013 before its lifespan was extended. But in 2016, China's space agency announced it had lost control of the station and its orbit began to decay. Despite its relatively short mission, Tiangong-1 has sent back a host of valuable data.