A “Heavenly Palace” is set to crash down on Earth sometime in the next few months. Where it will land is anybody’s guess.
Now, six years after it went into orbit, the space station will soon meet a fiery and uncontrolled end, careering down to crash someplace scientists have not yet figured out.
In September of last year, Chinese officials confirmed that they had lost control of the 8.5-ton laboratory. China informed the United Nations that the space lab would enter the Earth sometime between October and April 2018.
The majority of Tiangong 1, which is 34 feet long, is expected to burn up on its way down. But according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, pieces of the space lab that weigh as much as 220 pounds could still make it to Earth.
You really can’t steer these things,
McDowell said. “Even a couple of days before it reenters, we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down. Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down.”
This is not the first time an uncontrolled crash will take place. In 1991, the Soviet Salyut 7 space station landed on Earth in a fiery ball, while NASA’s Skylab did the same in 1979, crashing somewhere in Western Australia.
In September 2016, China launched Tiangong 2, with the aim of setting up a permanent space station in orbit by 2020. The 2011 launch was seen as a “potent political symbol” that was an important step in the country’s expanding space program and a means for China to exert its emergence as a superpower.
Tiangong 1 ended its run after it had “comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission,” according to Wu Ping, deputy director of the manned space engineering office. The lab had hosted two three-person crews in its lifespan, including the country’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang.