Chinese Tiangong-1 space lab crashing back to Earth

A CGI rendering of Tiangong-1. Image courtesy of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.
A CGI rendering of Tiangong-1. Image courtesy of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

New information released this month by China confirms that Tiangong-1 is crashing back to Earth.

In a press conference China’s space agency confirmed had lost contract with the space lab, and it was now due to for an uncontrolled re-entry in late 2017.

Tiangong-1 was launched into space in 2011, and then visited twice by Chinese astronauts in 2012 and 2013.

Since then however, an undisclosed malfunction has caused the craft to become unresponsive.

Given that its position in Low Earth Orbit causes it to come in contact with the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, its orbit is slowing down and decaying in altitude.

Without any outside intervention it will eventually slow to the point where it re-enters denser parts of the atmosphere.

While the Tiangong-1 lab, measuring approximately 10.4m long and 3.3m in circumference, is indeed large for a spacecraft, it will still mostly burn up upon re-entry, meaning it would pose little threat to people on Earth.

“The space lab is currently intact and orbiting at an average height of 370 kilometers,” said Wu Ping, deputy director of China’s manned space engineering office. “Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling.”

Nonetheless, parts of re-entering space stations have in the past crashed down onto land. Famously a local government in Western Australia once fined Nasa for littering, after part of its Skylab crashed to earth in a remote part of the state.

Knowing this, China has promised to continue monitoring the orbit of Tiangong-1 and provide warning of any potential collisions with other objects.

Furthermore, the country also stated that it would release a forecast of where the space lab would fall “if necessary”.

While this loss of Tiangong-1 does represent a small set back for China’s space program, it has not delayed the overall Tiangong space station project.

Just last week the country successfully launched the larger and more advanced Tiangong-2 space lab into orbit, which will then be visited by the manned Shenzhou-11 spacecraft in October.