The China National Space Administration has admitted that they lost control of their first space station, five years after launching it into space. The agency’s first space station is expected to come down crashing on earth sometime between October 2017 and April 2018.
The 8.5 tonne station, named Tiangong-1 has lived beyond expectations. It was originally planned to deorbit in 2013 as two other space stations were supposed to replace it. The 12 meter space laboratory, which hosted missions including astronauts, was used as a technological test bed for a larger space station planned for 2023.
According to ABC 13, the Tiangong-1 was orbiting above earth at around 216 miles a year ago. The International Space Station orbits at 254 miles. Since losing control, each day it is dropping by about 525 feet towards earth.
While objects from space (natural or man-made) often fall towards the earth, most burn up in the atmosphere. Most of these objects are usually rocks, bits and parts of space probes or rockets. Believe it or not, there is a lot of junk floating out there in space, many of which are man-made. The United States Strategic Command even maintains a database of large pieces that can potentially threaten space stations or satellites.
Some scientists are concerned that parts of Tiangong-1 could be too dense to completely burn up in the atmosphere and could crash on the earth intact. This could create a lot of danger to whatever stands in its way.
According to the Guardian, chances of debris harming someone is remote but China told the United Nations “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” in May that it would carefully monitor the craft’s descent. Speaking to the Guardian, Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist from Harvard University said that it is impossible to predict where the debris is going to land. “You really can’t steer these things. 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.”
He added that even a slight change in atmospheric conditions can nudge the landing site “from one continent to the next.”
This is not the first time a space station came down hurtling towards the earth. Several large spacecraft have made uncontrolled landings and none caused injuries to people. In 1991, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7, a 20 tonne space station crashed on the earth while still docked to another 20 tonne spacecraft called the Cosmos 1686. Breaking up over Argentina, debris scattered over the town of Capitán Bermúdez.
NASA’s space station, the enormous 77 tonne Skylab came down in an uncontrolled descent in 1979, with some large pieces landing outside Perth in Australia.