8-Ton Chinese Space Station Crashing into Earth This Year... Somewhere


China's first space station laboratory, "Heavenly Palace 1" (Tiangong 1), is out of control and will crash into the Earth within the next 7 months. Chinese officials reported this to the United Nations in 2016 that it stopped functioning and is falling into Earth's orbit at 160 meters per day. It was launched in 2011 as a prototype for a planned permanent space station and has “comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission,” Wu Ping, deputy director of the manned space engineering office, was quoted as saying at a news conference by Xinhua, China's state news agency.

This lab enabled space experiments for four and a half years, two years more than expected, hosting 3-person crews, including China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012. It weighs 8.5 tons, is 34 feet long, and Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist from Harvard University, told the Guardian that 220-pound pieces could survive burning up during re-entering the atmosphere and crash somewhere. 

No one knows nor can anyone accurately predict ahead of time exactly when and where the pieces will land. 

Even slight changes in atmospheric conditions can alter the landing site “from one continent to the next,” McDowell told the Guardian. "You really can’t steer these things,” he 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.”

Now, if you thought that was bad news, China already launched a second experimental space station in 2016 called, you guessed it, "Heavenly Palace 2" (Tiangong 2), with the plan for a permanent one in 2020. 

For spacecraft that remain in control, scientists carefully guide their reentry to a place on Earth called the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility, a 2.5-mile-deep spot in the ocean known as the “spacecraft cemetery” about 3,000 miles off the eastern coast of New Zealand and 2,000 miles north of Antarctica. As of June 2016, more than 263 spacecraft had crashed at the cemetery since 1971, according to Popular Science.

The race back into space has been ramping up with Elon Musk's SpaceX reusable rocket ships, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic jets, and the Trump administration's funding of the US space program. So, there's bound to be competition and risks, which make this an exciting time, and I hope we won't see too many space crafts falling out of the skies. With China's track record of human rights abuses and communist politics, it would be wise to keep an eye on them moving forward to ensure the advantageous position of space remains upright.