'Most parts will burn up': It sounds a lot like China's space station is out of control

Shenzhou-9 spacecraft approaching Tiangong-1 for docking in 2012. Picture: Getty Images

China’s eight-tonne “Heavenly Palace”, otherwise known as space station Tiangong-1, will crash to Earth sometime late next year.

The most accurate prediction China’s Manned Space Engineering office could give at a press conference this morning was “based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling”.

Xinhua reports deputy director Wu Ping could not name a specific time or place for Tiangong-1’s return to Earth. Onlookers say that’s about as strong as confirmation gets that China has lost control of its maiden space station.

“Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian.

He said while most parts would disitegrate before hitting Earth, we could expect a few “lumps of about 100kg or so”.

After nearly five years in space, Wu said Tiangong-1 had “comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission”.

The space lab is currently intact and orbiting at an average height of 370km, Wu said, adding that China would monitor its slow descent and “strengthen early warning for possible collision with objects”.

At the same press event, Wu announced China would be launching Tiangong-2 on Friday morning.

Tiangong-1’s launch in September, 2011, was broadcast on Chinese TV with the somewhat bizarre accompaniment of “America the Beautiful”. Several Shenzhou missions have docked with the space station, which has been in orbit two-and-a-half years longer than intended.

Chinese astronauts (“taikonauts”) are prohibited from entering the ISS due to security concerns, so the Tiangong programme is used to test technologies for China’s large modular space station, scheduled for launch in 2023.

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