Chinese Space Station Will Crash to Earth Within Months
The 8.5-ton, 34-foot long Chinese space station Tiangong-1 (translated to “Heavenly Palace”) is expected to crash to the surface of Earth within months, following an accelerated out-of-control descent.
“Now that [its] perigee is below 300km and it is in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist from Harvard University. “I expect it will come down a few months from now – late 2017 or early 2018.”
Launched by the Chinese National Space Administration on 2011 as a manned laboratory and experimental test-bed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities, Chinese officials confirmed in September 2016 that the agency had lost control of the station, notifying the United Nations that it expects Tiangong-1 to come down between October 2017 and April 2018.
The lab’s orbit is constantly monitored by the Chinese agency, with an average altitude approximately 217 miles (349 kilometers). The orbit is decaying at a daily rate of 525 feet (160 meters), according to the United Nations.
Most pieces of the satellite will burn up on re-entry, but pieces may still strike the ground. And pinpointing the potential impact site (or sites) is close to impossible.
“You really can’t steer these things,” McDowell explained. “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.”
So should you be worried about getting hit with a chunk of space junk? Not quite yet.
Aerospace Corporation thinks “it is highly unlikely that debris from this reentry will strike any person or significantly damage any property.”
And the United Nations agrees, stating the chance of impact is extremely low. “The probability of endangering and causing damage to aviation and ground activities is very low,” a notification from the U.N. explains.
Past satellites have ultimately impacted the surface of Earth after their own uncontrollable re-entries.
In 1991, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7, a 20 ton space station, broke up over Argentina and scattered debris over the town Capitan Bermudez.
And NASA’s 77 ton Skylab careened uncontrollably back to Earth in 1979, bombarding areas outside of Perth, Australia with large chunks of wreckage.
You can track Tiangong-1 over the night sky in your area by looking at Space.com’s Satellite Tracker Map.