China’s first space laboratory called Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace” in Chinese) is expected to re-enter atmosphere in the second half of 2017, according to Chinese officials. While most parts of the spacecraft will burn up during falling, there are worries that some pieces may hit the ground.
Last week, Wu Ping, the deputy director of China Manned Space Engineering Office (CSME) revealed that Tiangong-1 is currently intact and orbiting at an average altitude of 230 miles (370 kilometers). First indication that something is wrong with the small space station came in March this year, when CSME reported that it started to descend gradually and will eventually fall back to Earth.
Although, at this time it is difficult to estimate exactly when, or where the Tiangong-1 module will re-enter the atmosphere, Ping insists that the spacecraft’s demise shouldn’t cause any problems on the ground.
"Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling," Ping said.
She added that it is unlikely that this re-entry will affect aviation activities or cause damage to the ground.
However, some experts are convinced that some of the space laboratory’s parts, especially rocket engines will not burn up completely and could do minor damages on the ground.
“There will be lumps of about 100 kilograms (220 lbs.) or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you. There’s a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone’s car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone’s roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage,” Jonathan McDowell, Harvard astrophysicist and space industry enthusiast, told The Guardian.
China will now continue to monitor Tiangong-1 closely and will issue early warnings for possible collision with satellites and other space objects, if necessary. The country intends to release a forecast of the space lab’s falling and report it internationally, when more information on the spacecraft’s status is available.
Ping noted that China has always highly valued the management of space debris, conducting research and tests on space debris mitigation and cleaning.
With a mass of about 8.5 metric tons, Tiangong-1 measures some 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of 11 feet (3.35 meters). The laboratory was launched in September of 2011 and nine months later, in June 2012, three Chinese astronauts inside the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft docked with it for the first time.
Tiangong-1 was visited in June 2013 when the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft transported another trio of taikonauts. In addition to scientific experiments, the crew taught a physics lesson to Chinese students via live television while on board the lab. Besides being used as a laboratory for research in space, Tiangong-1 also served as an experimental module to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities.
On Sept. 15, 2016, China launched its second space laboratory into space, designated Tiangong-2, similar in size to its predecessor. This mission is an important step for China toward building its own permanent space station, as it will enable testing key technologies before sending a larger module into orbit.
In October 2016, Tiangong-2 will be visited by the crewed Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. The arriving crew will enter the module to live there and carry out experiments. In April 2017, the new Tianzhou-1 cargo ship is planned to dock with the laboratory, delivering fuel and supplies.
China’s future space station is expected to be built sometime between 2018 and 2022. The first module of the future orbital outpost, called Tiangong-3, will include a laboratory with integrated modular racks for storing scientific equipment. It will also have five docking ports and a robotic arm.