SCIENCE

Chinese Space Station Expected To Plummet To Earth In 2017

Scientists say there's no need to panic.

23/09/2016 7:49 PM AEST | Updated 23/09/2016 7:49 PM AEST
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China's rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 module, or 'Heavenly Palace', blasts off from the Jiuquan launch center in Gansu province on Sept. 29, 2011.

China’s orbiting space station will crash to Earth in 2017, the country’s state-run news agency Xinhua reports a government official as saying. Last week’s announcement follows months of rumors that China had lost control of the station.

The Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” launched in September 2011 as China’s first space laboratory. Its mission was to establish its own space station and position China as a leader in space technology, the Guardian reported.

The station hosted its last crew in 2013 and was officially decommissioned in March 2016, but it continues to orbit the Earth at an average height of nearly 230 miles.

Speculation that China had lost control of Tiangong-1 spread in June after Thomas Dorman, an amateur satellite tracker who had been observing the station, told Space.com that he thinks “China will wait until the last minute to let the world know it has a problem with their space station.”

Officials said during last week’s press conference in Jinquan, Gansu Province, that the 18,739-pound station is expected to re-enter the planet’s atmosphere in the latter half of next year.

Most of the station will burn up when it enters the atmosphere, according to their calculations.

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Scientists look at the screen showing the Shenzhou X manned spacecraft conducting docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on June 13, 2013.

Spacecraft operators usually plan for decommissioned space stations to re-enter the atmosphere over a remote location in the ocean. That ensures falling debris not burned away during re-entry won’t cause any harm or significant damage on impact.

Xinhua reported that China will continue to monitor Tiangong-1, “strengthen early warning for possible collision with objects” and, if necessary, release internationally a forecast of where it will be falling. This indicates some level of uncertainty about where the space lab will fall, as The Washington Post points out.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the Guardian that the announcement suggested that the station was out of China’s control.

“You can’t really steer these things,” McDowell told the newspaper. “Even a couple of days before it reenters 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.”

Although most of the space station will burn as it reenters the atmosphere, some denser parts would still crash on Earth, McDowell said.

“There will be lumps of about [220 pounds] or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you,” he said, adding that the debris probably wouldn’t cause widespread damage.

But if you’re anxious that a fiery piece of the Heavenly Palace might hit you in 2017, relax. There’s a 1-in-3,200 chance that space debris would strike any of the billions of humans on Earth, according to a 2011 NASA re-entry risk assessment.

What’s more, Chris Peat, the developer of the satellite tracking website Heavens-Above.com, said that the Defense Department is following Tiangong-1 on its worldwide network of radar installations. “They make the orbital elements available to the public via the Space-Track web site and this is where we get the orbital data from in order to make our predictions,” Peat told astronomy news site Universe Today.

And if you’re still worried about an out-of-control space station plummeting to Earth, keep the following in mind: An average of one piece of space debris crashed on Earth every day from 1961 to 2011, according to Space.com. No serious injury or property damage was ever confirmed.

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