CNSA

China pretty much just admitted it's lost control of its space station

It's headed this way.

PETER DOCKRILL
21 SEP 2016
 

While the gaze of the world was pointed upwards last week as China launched its second ever space station into orbit, the nation appears to have more quietly acknowledged that it has lost control of its first such space station module.

At a press conference last Wednesday in the lead-up to the launch of the Tiangong–2 space lab, Chinese officials confirmed that its predecessor prototype, called Tiangong–1, will fall into Earth's atmosphere sometime in the latter half of 2017.

 

While there's probably no need to panic – as Tiangong–1 will most likely burn up upon re-entry into our planet's atmosphere – the announcement is being seen as a belated confirmation of what some in the space community have long suspected: that China has actually lost control of the space station.

Wu Ping, deputy director of China's Manned Space Engineering Office told media at the press conference last week that the space module, which launched in September 2011, had "comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission", having originally only been intended to operate in space for two years.

The space station – designed as a small modular component capable of docking with spacecraft – is still intact, Wu said, and is orbiting Earth at an altitude of 370 kilometres (230 miles).

But that altitude is now decaying, and when it comes into contact with the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere towards the end of next year, it will be consumed in a fiery demise.

"Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling," Wu said, explaining that there was little chance of any fragments causing damage on Earth's surface or disrupting aviation activities.

According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, China will be monitoring Tiangong–1's final descent and, in the event of any possible dangerous collisions on Earth, will issue an international warning.

 

But Wu also noted that China has a long history of managing space debris and mitigating problems with space junk – and the world will certainly be hoping that that experience pays off in the second half of 2017.

While the confirmation that Tiangong–1 (which means "Heavenly Palace" in Mandarin) is coming down finally ends China's silence on the fate of the aged space station, it doesn't exactly clarify whether this is a managed descent or a late admission that the module is now out of control.

But the ambiguity in the language suggests it's more likely a case of the latter, as Avery Thompson at Popular Mechanics explains:

"Normally, a decommissioned satellite or space station would be retired by forcing it to burn up in the atmosphere. This type of burn is controlled, and most satellite re-entries are scheduled to burn up over the ocean to avoid endangering people."

"However, it seems that China's space agency is not sure exactly when Tiangong–1 will re-enter the atmosphere, which implies that the station has been damaged somehow and China is no longer able to control it."

According to Thompson, while it's unlikely that anybody will be injured – as most parts of the station will indeed burn up before they hit the ground – this means it's still an uncontrolled descent.

Which makes it impossible to know exactly when or where Tiangong–1's debris will fall, and means there's still a chance, however slim, that fragments could strike populated areas.

We'll have to keep a watch on this, because at the moment, until China shares more of the facts, there's not that much more we can say for sure.

But the timing of the Tiangong–1 announcement may confirm the fears of amateur satellite tracker Thomas Dorman – based in El Paso, Texas – who was one of the first to warn that China might have lost control of the module earlier in the year.

"If I am right, China will wait until the last minute to let the world know it has a problem with their space station," Dorman told Leonard David at Space.com back in June.

"It could be a real bad day if pieces of this came down in a populated area… but odds are, it will land in the ocean or in an unpopulated area. But remember – sometimes, the odds just do not work out, so this may bear watching."

More From ScienceAlert

Pay what you want for this White Hat Hacker 2017 Bundle

Become an ethical hacker this holidays. 

2 days ago
The total mass of Earth's 'Technosphere' is 30 trillion tonnes
2 days ago
Tornado outbreaks in the US are getting worse, and no one knows why

Twister chains are twice as big as they used to be.

2 days ago