An out-of-control Chinese space station has accelerated its descent towards the Earth, and will come crashing down to the surface within a next few months, experts say. But that’s not the bad part; because no one can predict where the space laboratory is going to hit.
Tiangong 1, which means “Heavenly Palace,” is China’s first space laboratory that was launched in September 2011. The project, described as a “potent political symbol” of China, was launched as one of the great hopes of the Chinese ambitions in space. The 9.4-ton (more than 8500 kg) laboratory was used for both manned and unmanned missions.
However, after terminating its data service in March 2016, Chinese officials, in September 2016, confirmed that they had lost control of the space station and it was in a decaying orbit. The Chinese space agency has predicted that it would fall to Earth sometime between October 2017 and April 2018, noting that its altitude was about 370 kilometres.
According to Jonathan McDowell, a renowned astrophysicist from Harvard University, the space station is a lot closer than before. “Now that [its] perigee is 300 km and it is in the denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is higher,” he told The Guardian. “I expect it will come down a few months from now - late 2017 or early 2018.”
Much of the space lab, which is about 34 feet in length, is expected to burn up in the atmosphere during its reentry. However, McDowell noted that some parts weighing up to 220 pounds (100 kg) could crash into the Earth’s surface. China has notified the United Nations that it would carefully monitor the space station’s descent and inform them when it begins its final plunge. The odds that the crashing spacecraft will damage ground activities are very low.
The chances of predicting where and when the space lab is going to fall are not certain. Even a slight change in atmospheric conditions could alter the landing site “from one continent to the next,” McDowell told The Guardian. He also said that it would be impossible to predict where it is going to come down even in the days ahead of its landing.
Crashes of larger spacecraft, while rare, have been happened before. In 1991 the Soviet Union’s 20-tonne Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth, while NASA’s enormous 77-tonne Skylab space station plunged down and fell over outside Perth in Western Australia in 1979.
The second experimental station, Tiangong 2, was launched by China in September 2016. China is aiming to have a permanently manned space station in orbit by 2020.
Information source: The Guardian
Title image: telegraph