Chinese space station to come crashing down to Earth soon

13 Oct 2017

Illustration of a space station similar in size to Tiangong-1. Image: 3Dsculptor/Shutterstock

China’s ‘heavenly palace’ is set to crash down to Earth in a matter of months as the country’s space agency loses control of its orbit.

The International Space Station typically gets all the headlines for its scientific achievements, and now the Chinese space agency’s Tiangong-1, otherwise known as the ‘heavenly palace’, is sharing the limelight – but for the wrong reasons.

According to The Guardian, after six years in orbit, the Chinese station is set to come crashing down in a matter of months as its descent is increasing rapidly, having entered into an out-of-control orbit last year.

In 2016, China confirmed that the station’s future was out of its hands and that it would crash some time this year or the next, but the estimate has been refined to between now and April 2018.

The space agency has already updated the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs on Tiangong-1’s demise, with the 8.5-tonne space station expected to largely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Some of its larger components, weighing up to 100kg, could fall to Earth but are unlikely to land on any major population areas.

‘You really can’t steer these things’

The challenge for the Chinese space agency now is to closely monitor when exactly Tiangong-1 reaches the re-entry point as even the smallest of changes in trajectory could see potential landing sites vary by as much as a continent.

Speaking with The Guardian last year, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said: “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.”

The station was once seen as a show of national power by the Chinese, and the country already has a replacement station in the form of Tiangong-2, which can hold two Chinese astronauts, otherwise referred to as taikonauts.

Weighing just under nine tonnes and measuring more than 10 metres in length, Tiangong-2 will be used to test the vital equipment of China’s future space station, including its life support, maintenance and refuelling systems.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic