Next year, China’s space station will fall out of the sky.
China launched Tiangong-1, its first orbiting laboratory, in 2011, and since then it has been home to a rotating cast of experiments and astronauts. In 2013, Tiangong-1’s primary mission period ended, so China put the spacecraft into “sleep mode” and stopped sending astronauts to the station, although data continued to stream in about how parts were holding up on the empty, dormant station. In March of this year, Tiangong-1, which translates to “Heavenly Palace,” was shut down for good.
Soon after Tiangong-1 was decommissioned, rumors began to circulate that China had lost control of the 9-ton spacecraft, which appeared to be tumbling aimlessly through its orbit 200 miles up. When no official announcement was released about when or how Tiangong-1 would be deorbited, experts speculated that China itself did not know. Now, Chinese officials may have confirmed that they have lost all control of the space station.
Usually, when a satellite’s mission is complete, its demise has been meticulously planned ahead of time. Some spacecraft are shot away from Earth into a “graveyard orbit,” far from where they could damage any active satellites. Those that aren’t blasted away are carefully steered back towards Earth, where most small satellites burn up completely in the atmosphere. Bits of larger ones can make it all the way to the surface, but they are carefully aimed so that any debris falls into the ocean. In fact, about 2,500 miles off New Zealand’s coast at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is a spacecraft cemetery, full of detritus from Russia’s Mir space station and many other deorbited satellites.
All this careful planning prevents the dangerous possibility of spacecraft chunks randomly falling to Earth, which could cause enormous damage if they hit a house or car (or, in an unlikely but possible and alarming scenario, a person). For Tiangong-1, however, there can
Leah Crane is a Chicago-based freelance science writer and editor primarily covering physics and space. She really, *really* loves space and tweets about it at @DownHereOnEarth. She holds a BA in Physics from Carleton College and is currently working as an editorial intern at SpaceNews while seeking continuing employment in science communication.