A Chinese space station is plummeting back down to Earth and could reach atmosphere as early as March, according to scientists.
Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace”, is the first Chinese space station to ever be deployed to orbit. It was first launched in September 2011 to test Chinese capability of remote docking and orbital rendezvous but was abandoned in 2013 after completing its two-year service life. Since then it remained in orbit providing data to Chinese space officials on the longevity of its technology in orbit.
However, in 2016 China lost contact with the space station and reported that it was slowly falling back down to Earth. In a few short months, it will collide with Earth’s atmosphere at over 15,000 miles per hour where it will undoubtedly explode and rain debris over the planet below.
Bill Ailor is an aerospace engineer with Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit research company which studies space travel. The corporation predicted that Tiangong-1 would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in December, and has been keeping a close eye on it ever since.
Speaking to Business Insider, Ailor says that it is possible not everything will be destroyed when Tiangong-1 crashes back down to Earth. "The thing about a space station is that it's typically got things on the inside, so basically, the heating will just strip these various layers off. If you've got enough layers, a lot of the energy is gone before a particular object falls out, it doesn't get hot, and it lands on the ground."
In comparison with the International Space Station, Tiangong-1 is tiny - only 1/60th its overall size. With only two rooms it also has a very limited capacity for passengers and was mostly intended to test the effects of prolonged zero-gravity on the human body as well as provide data for China’s next space station, the much larger Tiangong-2.
In March 2016, China sent a memo to UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to say that they had lost contact with Tiangong-1 after it had "fully fulfilled its historic mission." In May of last year, China sent another memo saying that Tiangong-1 had descended from an original orbit of 218 miles to 175 miles.
It’s most likely that Tiangong-1 will break up over the ocean, but it’s possible that pieces of debris could survive to impact people on the surface. "It's not impossible,” says Ailor, “but since the beginning of the space age ... a woman who was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma is the only one we're aware of who's been touched by a piece of space debris.”