The Chinese space station Tiangong 1 is indeed failing and is slowly headed towards the Earth. While China’s first space laboratory will make a fiery reentry in the second half of 2017, its replacement has already left Earth, indicated Chinese officials.
China’s first space laboratory is expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere sometimes in late 2017. The space station has been in orbit for around five years now. While the average decommissioned satellite either plummets to it is fiery end over a carefully chosen ocean region or is shot into the eternal depths of space, Tiangong 1’s end could be much more dramatic and spectacular, if not catastrophic.
While there has been no official confirmation, Chinese officials strongly implied during a September 14 news conference in Jiuquan that they are no longer in complete control over Tiangong 1. This essentially means China is no longer steering the 9.4-ton (8.5 metric tons) space station that’s currently orbiting about 230 miles (370 kilometers) above Earth. Speaking about the reentry, Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s Manned Space Engineering office, said the following.
“Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling. China is monitoring the space station for collisions with other objects.”
Tiangong 1, which means “Heavenly Palace,” is currently intact and is orbiting with a fair amount of reliability. At 230 miles, it is slightly nearer to Earth than the International Space Station which orbits at 250 miles (400 Km).
The space station may be reliable now, but could cause problems here on the ground, added Wu. China is closely monitoring the space station’s every move and its steadily deteriorating orbit. While Tiangong 1 is not posing any threat to other satellites rotating around Earth, it’s trajectory could interject in the near future. Chinese space agency has noted that it would release an international forecast notifying other nations where exactly Tiangong 1 will land. Since China isn’t sure about the final trajectory, it is apparent that the space station’s descent is erratic and uncontrolled.
There have been consistent signs indicating China may not be steering Tiangong 1. Officially, the space station hosted its last human crew way back in 2013. However, the station continued to autonomously operate until March 2016, when it was officially decommissioned. Soon after, rumors began circulating about the space station going rogue. Space reported they had received repeated warnings from amateur satellite tracker Thomas Dorman of El Paso that the space station appeared to move randomly.
Incidentally, while the Tiangong 1 is failing, China has already sent Tiangong 2 into space. The replacement to the five-year-old space station blasted off on September 15 aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China. The new space station will welcome two “taikonauts” in the month of October.
Where will Tiangong 1 land? While the majority of the space station will incinerate in the upper atmosphere, experts predict a few larger chunks like rocket engines, could survive the intense heat and pressure of reentry. Though China may not be able to control the descent of Tiangong 1, the chances of the space station landing on an inhabited area are extremely remote.
Majority of smaller satellites are routinely downed in a secluded region in the Pacific Ocean about 2,500 miles to the east of New Zealand. Informally known as the “spacecraft cemetery,” the region currently holds the remnants of more than a 100 satellites from countries all across the globe.
China could have sent Tiangong 1 into the infinite depths of space, simply by sending a command instructing the boosters to fire in a direction opposite to Earth. However, the country’s inability to steer the space station means that it will return to Earth.