While the eyes of the globe were pointed in the air last week as China launched its another space station into orbit, the nation seems to have more silently admitted that it has lost control of its first such space station part. At a press meeting last Week in the lead-up to the launch of the Tiangong-2 space laboratory; Chinese officials committed that its predecessor module, known as Tiangong-1, will descent into our planet's atmosphere sometime in the end of 2017. While there is possibly no need to worry, as Tiangong-1 will most probably burn up upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, the statement is being seen as a late confirmation of what some in the space community have long assumed: that China has really lost control of the space station.
Deputy director of China's Manned Space Engineering Office, Wu Ping told media at the press meeting this month that, “the predecessor prototype, known as Tiangong-1, was launched in September 2011, had comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission, having initially only been planned to function in space for two years. The space station considered as a small modular-piece holds the ability of docking with spacecraft is still unbroken and is orbiting Earth at an altitude of 370 kilometers (230 miles)”.
But that altitude is now decreasing, and when it approaches into the higher reaches of Earth's atmosphere just before the end of next year, it will be consumed in a burning death.
Wu said, "Based on our calculation and investigation, most parts of the space laboratory will burn up during falling", clarifying that there was little chance of any remains causing damage on Earth's surface or disturbing aviation events.
According to the national news agency Xinhua, China will be watching Tiangong-1's final decline and, in the event of any possible risky collisions on Earth, will announce an international warning.
But Wu Ping also noted that China has a great history of handling space wreckages and mitigating difficulties with space junk and the world will surely be expecting that that experience pays off in the end of 2017. Though the verification that Tiangong-1, which means "Heavenly Palace" in Mandarin, is coming down finally finishes China's silence on the chance of the aged space station, it does not correctly explain whether this is a managed decline or a late admission that the prototype is now out of control.
But the doubt in the language suggests it is more likely an incident of the latter.
As Avery Thompson at Popular Mechanics describes, “Generally, a decommissioned satellite or space station would be retired by driving it to burn up in the atmosphere. This kind of burn is controlled, and most satellite re-entries are arranged to burn up over the ocean to avoid risking people lives. But, it appears that China's space agency is not sure just when Tiangong-1 will re-enter the planet’s atmosphere, which suggests that the station has been damaged somehow and China is no longer capable of observing it any more".
Avery Thompson describes, most sections of the station will absolutely burn up before they touch the surface. We will have to keep a guard on this, because at the moment until China shares more of the details, there is not that much more we can say certainly.
But the timing of the Tiangong-1 statement may confirm the fears of unprofessional satellite tracker Thomas Dorman, based in El Paso, Texas, who was one of the first to inform that China might have lost control of the Tiangong-1 earlier in the year. Thomas Dorman told Leonard David at Space.com back in June, "If I am correct, China will delay until the last minute to let the world know it has a difficult problem with their space station. It could be a real bad day if fragments of this came down in a populated area… but odds are it will strike the ocean or in an un-populated area. But remember, sometimes, the chances just do not work out, so this may allow watching."