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As Predicted, Chinese Space Lab Falls From The Sky

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

China's first-ever space station made a fiery return to Earth Sunday after more than six years in space. The station was an important part of China's bid to become a leading power in space. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, reporting from Beijing.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Foreign language spoken).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: State media reports that the Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, was picked up by flight control as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere at about quarter past 8:00 in the morning Beijing time. The report says that most of the space station burned up on re-entry somewhere over the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. Space debris experts from more than a dozen space agencies including NASA have tracked the falling vehicle. They couldn't predict exactly where it would land, but they agreed that the chances of anyone getting hit by falling debris were next to none.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

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KUHN: The Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011. It was about 34 feet long and weighed more than 9 tons. China later sent two crews of three astronauts each to dock with the station, including China's first two female astronauts. The craft had areas for the crews to cook, sleep and exercise. The Tiangong-1 was only supposed to operate for two years, but it lasted two-and-a-half years longer than that. Scientist Yang Hong designed the space station. He's a member of the Paris-based International Academy of Astronautics. Here's how he described the spacecraft's role to Chinese state television.

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YANG HONG: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "In future, people will travel not only to the moon, but to even more remote planets," he says. "So we have to resolve the problem of human beings surviving in space for long periods under low-gravity conditions." China launched the Tiangong-2 in 2016 in preparation for putting up a permanent space station in 2023. Five years ago, China put its first unmanned rover on the moon. By 2020, it's aiming to put another one on Mars. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.