Chinese Space Station Falling to Earth in 2017
Experts suggest authorities have lost control of the station
September 27, 2016
China's first space station, the Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace 1," is expected to fall back to Earth in 2017.
The laboratory was launched in 2011 as part of China's ambitious plan to catch up with other space powers.
Experts and amateurs alike have speculated for several months that the 34 foot-long module might have suffered some kind of technical or mechanical failure, and may no longer be in communication with the Command and Control Center in Beijing.
Harvard astrophysicist Dr Jonathan McDowell believes China might have lost control of the station, reports the Guardian newspaper.
"You really can't steer these things," McDowell said. "Even a couple of days before it re-enters we probably won't know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it's going to come down."
"Not knowing when it's going to come down translates as not knowing where it's going to come down."
The lab is currently still intact and orbiting at about 230 miles above the planet.
Wu Ping, deputy director of China's manned space engineering office, says falling debris was unlikely to affect "aviation activities."
"Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling," she told a press conference this week.
China says the lab has "comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission."
Most of the 8.5-ton station is expected to melt as it passes through the atmosphere, but McDowell said some parts, such as the engines, were so dense they might not burn up completely.
Chunks of more than 200 pounds may make it to the Earth's surface.
China has recently launched its second trial space station, Tiangong-2, in hopes of having a crewed outpost in orbit by 2022.
Tiangong-1, "Heavenly Palace 1," is China's first prototype space station, serving as both a manned laboratory and an experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. Launched unmanned on 29 September 2011, it is the first operational component of the Tiangong program, which aims to place a larger, modular station into orbit by 2023. As of September 2011, Tiangong-1 was projected to be deorbited in 2013, and replaced over the following decade by the larger modules.
Tiangong-1 was visited by a series of Shenzhou spacecraft during its two-year operational lifetime. The first of these, the unmanned Shenzhou 8, successfully docked with the module in November 2011, while the manned Shenzhou 9 mission docked in June 2012. A third and final mission to Tiangong-1, the manned Shenzhou 10, docked in June 2013. The manned missions to Tiangong-1 were notable for including China's first female astronauts, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping.
In 2016, after two years of extended lifespan, the Space Engineering Office announced that Tiangong-1 had officially ended its service. The Chinese Space Agency revealed that the craft will re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere in sometime in 2017.