“Is China’s Tiangong-1 space station really hurtling toward Earth like an out of control fireball?”
The answer to that question, more or less, is yes. However, there is an important catch.
Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1 was China’s first space laboratory and prototype space station, designed to test the capabilities of orbital rendezvous and docking. Over the original planned operational time of two years, the Tiangong-1 underwent three dockings, hosted two manned missions and experienced one orbital maintenance mission.
Following that, the space-lab was put into sleep mode, where it has remained in orbit for the last three years or so.
So now, with the recent launch of Tiangong-2, Tiangong-1 will be coming down to let its successor take center stage.
However, the problem with anything re-entering the Earth’s lower atmosphere is that it will be subjected to intense pressures and temperatures resulting from the collision of air particles at high velocity with the spacecraft.
With manned modules, this problem is mitigated through the use of retro-rockets, heat-shielding materials, and a blunt bottom that distributes airflow in a way that won’t crack the spacecraft in half.
Unfortunately, Tiangong-1 has none of these. So it’s descent will be uncontrolled, just as many had expected and feared earlier this year. The fact that we don’t know when it will descend (and neither do they) also contributes to the fact that we don’t know where it will descend either. But don’t worry, China’s space agency is monitoring it.
Another positive is that, due to the high pressures and temperatures involved when the space lab actually descends to Earth, it is very likely that it will simply burn up in the atmosphere.
“Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling,” Wu Ping, the deputy director of China’s manned space engineering office, reassured during a recent press conference, according to Xinhua.
However, there is still the possibility that the spacecraft will not burn up entirely, and that some components may reach the surface/rural areas/major cities/your home — however small that chance may be.
We saw this same kind of thing before, almost 40 years ago when the US space station “Skylab” re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and dumped some debris around 500km outside of Perth, Australia.
But Tiangong-1 is significantly smaller than Skylab, so let’s hope that it lands somewhere inconsequential like in the middle of the ocean or in Wanda World.
By Christopher Shi
[Images via EliteReaders /SpaceNews]