spaceSpace and Physics

Out-Of-Control Chinese Space Station Will Re-Enter Earth's Atmosphere In Months


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Artist's impression of Tiangong-1. Yes, this was made in Kerbal Space Program. Kordite/Flickr

A Chinese space station that is reportedly out of the control in orbit will return to Earth in less than a year, with a small possibility debris will make it to the ground.

Called Tiangong-1, it was launched into orbit back in 2011, welcoming one unmanned spacecraft and two crews. As notes, however, it “ceased functioning” on March 16, 2016, and is now doomed to re-enter the atmosphere.


Throughout its life China performed periodic boosts, like that done on the International Space Station (ISS), to maintain its orbit. Since they lost control, its orbit has slowly degraded due to atmospheric drag by about 160 meters (525 feet) every day. This has seen it drop from about 400 to 350 kilometers (250 to 220 miles).

“It is unlikely that this is a controlled re-entry,” the Aerospace Corporation said. “It is suspected that control of Tiangong-1 was lost and will not be regained before reentry.”

At this rate, it will certainly re-enter the atmosphere. The only question at the moment is when and where. It looks like it will re-enter at some point between October 2017 and April 2018 according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), with the best estimate at the moment pointing to January.

As for where, Tiangong-1 looks like it will fall between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes. This is as far north as Italy, and as south as New Zealand.

This shows the upper and lower limits of where Tiangong-1 could re-enter. Oaktree b/Wikimedia

Debris is not suspected to survive re-entry, so the chances of someone being hit is pretty slim. However, if any debris does make it to the ground, it could contain a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine that must not be touched.

The largest man-made object ever to re-enter our atmosphere was the Mir space station in 2001. That weighed a hefty 120,000 kilograms (265,000 pounds), with some of the debris visible on Earth.

Tiangong-1 is pretty small by comparison, weighing just 8,500 kilograms (18,700 pounds). However, depending on the time of day, some of the burning debris could be visible for up to a few minutes as it streaks through the sky.

The station will be monitored over the next few months to get better constraints on what it’s up to. But it will definitely re-enter the atmosphere, almost certainly in the next year. And if it’s at night time and anyone can see it, it should make for quite the spectacle.


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