Media speculation that a Chinese #Space station is out of control and will fall to Earth were confirmed Wednesday when senior Chinese officials held a media conference in Beijing. According China’s state-run Xinhua News agency, Chinese Space Agency announced that the Tiangong-1 space station will fall to Earth some time in 2017.
Launched on September 29, 2011, the Tiangong-1 (which translates to “heavenly palace”) served as a research vessel with a two-year service life as a space station. Its last crew left, as intended, in June 2013. After that, it was switched to sleep mode to gather data and it was planned to be disposed of by a controlled descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, which would incinerate the vessel completely.
Out of control.
But something has gone wrong. In their media conference, the Chinese Space Agency has admitted that they do not know when the Tiangong-1 will re-enter the atmosphere, which strongly indicates that they can no longer control the ship from Earth.
In such an uncontrolled re-entry, experts like Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell say that the burn will not completely destroy the Tiangong-1 and that some denser components, like engines, will not be disintegrated. The Chinese have admitted that likelihood. “Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling,” Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s Manned Space Engineering office, told Xinhua.
Crashing to Earth.
According to McDowell, pieces as big as 200 pounds will come crashing down. They do stress, however, that much of the Earth’s surface is covered in water or is otherwise uninhabited, so the chances of a person being struck by a piece of the ship are very, very small.
Right now, the 18,800-pound space station is still in one piece and is orbiting the Earth at about 230 miles up. Its orbit is just a bit lower, 20 miles, than the International Space Station. The Chinese Space Agency has not said when they expect Tiangong-1 to begin its descent.
A similar situation occurred in 1979 when Skylab — the world’s first space station — descended too quickly and pieces of it fell over an uninhabited part of Australia. Nobody was hurt, but the local government fined NASA $400 for littering. #chinesespacestation