The Chinese space station Tiangong-1 has accelerated its out-of-control descent and will plunge to the ground somewhere on Earth in early 2018. Launched in 2011 in an effort to compete with the U.S. and Russia, the spacecraft was decommissioned in 2016, and China notified the UN that it would likely break apart and fall to Earth sometime in 2017 or 2018. Now we have a better prediction of when the “Heavenly Palace” may come crashing down. Aerospace.org projects that reentry will occur in March 2018.
This latest estimate gives a more precise timeline than previous ideas about when Tiangong-1 will return to Earth. In October, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian, “Now that [its] perigee is below 300 km and it is in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher.” As such, McDowell estimated that the spacecraft would come down somewhere between October 2017 and April 2018.
Another California company that advises the government on space programs and national security previously calculated that the date of re-entry will be late January or February of next year. “[We] receive orbital data from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) on a daily basis,” Andrew Abraham of The Aerospace Corporation told Newsweek. “We have been monitoring this data closely and perform re-entry calculations on a regular basis to monitor any changes in the space station’s orbit or decay rate.”
It’s unlikely that the remnants of the Tiangong-1 will land in a populated area, with most of the Earth covered by water and huge tracts of uninhabited land. However, chunks of debris as large as 60 pounds are expected to make it through re-entry and to the planet’s surface.
What should you do if pieces of the space station crash-land in your neighborhood? Don’t mess with it, says The Aerospace Corporation: “For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale vapors it may emit.” That said, you should certainly let the Aerospace Corporation know if you see the aircraft’s reentry this spring.
At 10.4 meters long and nearly 8.75 tons, Tiangong-1 served as a testbed for a variety of critical systems, such as life support. It also docked with the Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9, and Shenzhou-10 spacecrafts and performed a variety of other tasks during its four-and-a-half-year lifespan, some two years longer than initially anticipated.
Tiangong-1 was replaced by Tiangong-2. The new station will house two Chinese astronauts for up to a month, with further tests on life support systems and “scientific research.” One of those tests is an atomic clock, which scientists want to use to determine if the effects of gravity increase the accuracy of the timepiece, according to news reports.
But even Tiagong-2 won’t stay in orbit very long. That station, too, will fall to Earth in an uncontrolled manner, likely soon before the final version of the station launches sometime in the 2020s.
Update: Tiangong-1 should return to Earth in March 2018.