China’s first space station, Tiangong 1, is losing altitude quickly ever since the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) admitted they lost control of its orbit. No one knows for sure, but it is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in late 2017.
The Tiangong 1 was launched in 2011 and was China’s first big step into their expanding space program, solidifying their emergence as a growing superpower. Tiangong 1 (“Heavenly Palace 1” in English) is a relatively small space station that can hold three astronauts, but still weighs a hefty 19,000 pounds.
While Tiangong 1 has housed astronauts in the past, including Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, there is no one aboard the space station anymore as it was retired earlier this year.
Soon after the CNSA’s suspiciously worded announcement of its retirement, a team of amateur satellite trackers noticed that Tiangong 1 was no longer orbiting in a controlled manner and losing altitude fast.
The CNSA’s announcement vaguely stated that they would no longer be communicating with the space station, but what they really meant was that they are not able to communicate with (and thus control) the space station due to a malfunction. They essentially chose to attempt to save face and announce that they retired Tiangong 1 rather than admit they lost control of the space station.
After increased global speculation, Chinese officials finally confirmed that they indeed are no longer in control of Tiangong 1 last month and notified the UN that they expect it to come down sometime before spring of 2018.
Satellites can orbit Earth continuously because the vacuum of space allows them to zip around the planet without slowing down from air resistance. The lower Tiangong 1 gets, the more atmosphere it will encounter, slowing it down and causing it to drop even faster.
The good news is that most of Tiangong 1 will burn up in the atmosphere as it plows through the air at high supersonic speeds. There is a good chance that the whole space station will burn up before it hits the ground, but the heavier parts that weigh over 200 pounds will have a harder time burning up completely.
Usually, scientists aim their falling spacecraft at a spot in the Pacific Ocean named the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. The Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility is a place in the southern hemisphere of the Pacific Ocean that is the furthest point on the planet from any landmass. More than 263 spacecraft have been disposed of in this area making it the world’s unofficial spacecraft cemetery. Since the CNSA can’t control Tiangong 1, it will land wherever it flies off to.
This won’t be the first time a space station has a fiery reintroduction to Earth. In 1979, NASA’s gigantic 77.5 ton, nine-story tall Skylab crashed into a remote part of Australia. Luckily, no one was injured, but President Carter still issued an apology to the Australians.