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'Out-of-Control' Chinese Space Station Will Fall Down to Earth -- But Where?

Sep 24, 2016 09:44 AM EDT

Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace," the first space station of China, is expected to descend to Earth earlier than expected. It will only take a matter of time before the eight-metric ton space station's orbital demise. What's more alarming is that without telemetry, no one exactly knows where exactly on Earth will the space station crash down.

The Chinese space station is expected to fall down to Earth sometime in early 2017. But the Chinese space agency already confirmed that they lost telemetry with the space station; thus, they can no longer control its orbit. China did not disclose the reason why the space station is suddenly falling down from the orbit. Tiangong-1 started its launch into orbit last September 2011. The space station is used to practice rendezvous and docking procedures, and measures 10 meters long and 3 meters wide.

Fears on how the "uncontrollable" space station's debris will pass through the atmosphere and will rain molten space debris and the possibility that it can cause harm on humans have already grabbed headlines. NASA and other space agencies said that it is difficult to compute the overall risk to any person in the planet. There is actually one in several trillion, as reported in Phys.Org

As of press time, satellite tracking radar shows that the space station is at 380 km high and is traveling at 27,500 km per hour. With that current numbers of the speed and altitude, the Tiangong-1 can still travel the planet 5,000 more times before it feels the pressure of the upper atmosphere and starts it final descent. Huffington Post reported that most of the Tianggong-1 will burn up due to the aerodynamic heating in the Earth's atmosphere. The Chinese space agency admitted that some of heat-resistant elements of the space station may survive.

It is still pretty unpredictable where Tianggong-1's debris final resting place will be. Even computer simulations cannot tell on which orbit it will re-enter. All that is known for now is that Tiangong-1 is moving fast. And how it breaks up is determined by how it plunges through the atmosphere. Calculating a debris ellipse are what most of the space agencies do to know where the parts will land. However, the odds are in the favor of not landing on land, as Earth's surface is covered mostly with water.

Meanwhile, during a press conference for Tiangong-2 launch, Wu Ping, deputy director of China's Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office mentioned that China has always given importance to the management of space debris. They will continue observing Tiangong-1 and will release a forecast of its landing and inform it internationally.

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