China’s first space station is expected to come crashing down to Earth next year, fuelling concerns that Chinese space authorities have lost control of the 8.5-tonne module. The Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace” lab was described as a “potent political symbol” of China’s growing power when it was launched in 2011 as part of an ambitious scientific push to turn China into a space superpower.
However, speaking at a satellite launch centre in the Gobi Desert last week officials said the unmanned module had now “comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission” and was set to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere at some point in the second half of 2017.
“Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling,” the deputy director of China’s manned space engineering office, Wu Ping, was quoted as saying by official news agency Xinhua.
The announcement appeared to confirm months of speculation that China had lost control of the 10.4m-long module after it suffered some kind of technical or mechanical failure.
Jonathan McDowell, renowned Harvard astrophysicist and space industry enthusiast, said the announcement suggested China had lost control of the station and that it would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere “naturally.”
If this is the case, it would be impossible to predict where the debris from the space station will land.
“You really can’t steer these things,” he 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 Tiangong-1 is going to come down. Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down.”
McDowell said a slight change in atmospheric conditions could nudge the landing site “from one continent to the next”.
While most of the eight tonnes of space station would melt as it passes through the atmosphere, McDowell said some parts, such as the rocket engines, were so dense that they wouldn’t burn up completely.