China’s AWOL Tiangong-1 space lab set to fall to Earth any day now

30 Mar 2018

Image: Triff/Shutterstock

On Easter weekend, China’s Tiangong-1 space lab will experience a fiery return to Earth as the AWOL craft is finally put out of its misery.

No object in Earth’s orbit has been so closely tracked as the defunct space lab Tiangong-1, which has spent the past few months tumbling aimlessly since its Chinese owners lost all contact with it in 2016.

Now, a number of space agencies and interest groups – including the European Space Agency (ESA) – have calculated the trajectory of the craft and believe that it will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere some time this weekend, between 31 March and 1 April.

ESA’s scientists have also calculated that it will fall somewhere between the latitudes of 43 degrees north and south, putting it in a band that stretches from the north of Spain past the most southern tip of South Africa.

One of the greatest concerns over the past few months has been whether anyone on Earth would be at risk for flying debris as the craft enters our atmosphere, but estimates have said that the likelier outcome is that any debris would crash into the ocean.

It is believed that when the 8-tonne craft enters through Earth’s atmosphere, between 20pc and 40pc of it will make it through, most of which will be spread across an area hundreds of kilometres in width.

Tiangong-1 landing site

The broad area of Earth the Tiangong-1 space lab is set to re-enter over. Image: ESA

However, ESA – as a member of the 13-member Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) – is refraining from giving any definitive numbers as it is very hard to predict with 100pc accuracy what will happen in the days ahead.

Speaking to the BBC, Holger Krag, head of ESA’s space debris office, said: “A confidence of one hour is only reached about four hours beforehand. And one hour still means almost one revolution around the Earth. “But that’s still good enough to exclude many countries and even some continents.”

Hazardous material on board

Most of the returning debris will be made up from internal components in the craft, such as tanks that would have contained air and water for the crew on board.

However, earlier this month, there were warnings that the space station might also be carrying a dangerous substance.

“Potentially, there may be a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine on board the spacecraft that could survive re-entry,” the Aerospace Corporation said.

“For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale vapours it may emit.”

As for China, the space lab is nothing but a memory, as the country already launched its replacement, Tiangong-2, in 2016.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic