CHINESE SPACE STATION TO CRASH, BURN TO EARTH IN NEXT FEW MONTHS
In a blow to China’s space program, the Tiangong-1 space station is expected to crash to Earth in the next few months. Originally launched in 2011, the 8.5 ton station has been suffering increasingly rapid orbital decay and will fall out of orbit soon. China informed the UN last year that it had lost the ability to correct the station’s position and altitude, leading the station’s orbit to decay with a crash to Earth’s amotsphere between now and April of 2018.
STATION TO CRASH SOONER THAN MOST EXPECT, ALREADY SKIMMING THE OUTER ATMOSPHERE
Harvard University’s astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the Guardian that the station is actually already entering the atmosphere and we should expect an even more accelerated rate of decline, with the station falling to Earth well before April of next year. “Now that [its] perigee is below 300 kilometers [186 miles] and it is in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher,” McDowell said. “I expect it will come down a few months from now—late 2017 or early 2018.”
MASSIVE 220 POUND CHINKS OF STATION COULD POSE SERIOUS HAZARD AND IMPACT THE SURFACE AT EXTREME SPEED
He added there is a small chance chunks of the station weighing up to 220 pounds (100 kilograms) could remain intact and hit the ground at high speed.
The Tiangong-1 is very small by space station standards, and can only accommodate a small crew of three taikonauts. Its primary purpose is to serve as a prototype for future generations of Chinese stations and support craft.
WE WILL ONLY HAVE A FEW HOURS’ WARNING OF LOCATION AT RISK BEFORE IMPACTS
It is unlikely scientists will have more than a few hours’ heads-up on when and where Tiangong-1 will crash, but it is also unlikely to come down in a densely populated area where there would be appreciable odds of anyone being hurt or injured. As the Guardian noted, on several occasions spacecraft like NASA’s monstrously huge, 77.5-ton Skylab or Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite have made uncontrolled descents towards the Earth, but none of them have ever been found to have killed or hurt anyone.