China space station Tiangong-1 could be hurtling towards Earth, astronomers say
China’s first space station might be in freefall in space and on its way to crashing back down to Earth.
The Tiangong-1 satellite was launched in 2011, and should have come back down to Earth in a controlled crash. But watchers have said that it now appears to have gone into freewill, with China losing control of it, and so it could crash down onto the Earth any time.
Like other lost satellites, it’s likely that the freefalling station would burn up on its way back into Earth and come back down as molten metal rather than with a big crash. But people have warned that it could still be a “real bad day” if the rocket fell back down to Earth, “but odds are it will land in the ocean or in an unpopulated area”.
The huge size of the satellite mean that parts of it could still make their way through the searing heat of entry back into the atmosphere, and so cause problems when they arrive back on Earth.
China had hoped to use the satellite as the beginning of a station or space lab to rival the International Space Station. It finished its work in 2013, after being used for docking exercises that helped build other stations.
Since then it has been in an “operation management phase”, which sees its orbit controlled as it flies around Earth. It still undertakes some investigative and scientific work as it gets ready to come back to Earth, according to a statement from Chinese officials.
But an amateur astronomer called Thomas Dorman has been watching the movement of the satellite and believes that China has lost control of it. The fact that China has given no public statement on its safety could mean that it is lost, he told Space.com.
“"If I am right, China will wait until the last minute to let the world know it has a problem with their space station," Mr Dorman said.
Previously, Chinese media have reported that officials had struggled to get in contact with the satellite. But it has not reported on its health in recent months, something that experts have said likely does indicate problems and could be a test of whether the country is going to more open about its space programme.