Art and design

Books

Culture

Environment

Fashion

Film

Life and style

Money

Music

Politics

Science

Technology

Travel

Television

US news

World news

Tiangong-1: Chinese space station will crash to Earth within months

The Tiangong-1 space station is likely to crash to Earth but scientists are not sure where it will land.
The Tiangong-1 space station is likely to crash to Earth but scientists are not sure where it will land. Photograph: -

An 8.5-tonne Chinese space station has accelerated its out-of-control descent towards Earth and is expected to crash to the surface within a few months.

The Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace” lab was launched in 2011 and described as a “potent political symbol” of China, part of an ambitious scientific push to turn China into a space superpower.

It was used for both manned and unmanned missions and visited by China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012.

But in 2016, after months of speculation, Chinese officials confirmed they had lost control of the space station and it would crash to Earth in 2017 or 2018. China’s space agency has since notified the UN that it expects Tiangong-1 to come down between October 2017 and April 2018.

Since then the station’s orbit has been steadily decaying. In recent weeks it has dipped into more dense reaches of Earth’s atmosphere and started falling faster.

“Now that [its] perigee is below 300km and it is in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher,” said Jonathan McDowell, a renowned astrophysicist from Harvard University and a space industry enthusiast.

“I expect it will come down a few months from now – late 2017 or early 2018.”

Altitude of Tianong-1

Although much of the craft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, McDowell says some parts might still weigh up to 100kg when they crash into the Earth’s surface.

The chance that anyone will be harmed by the debris is considered remote but China told the United Nations “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” in May that it would carefully monitor the craft’s descent and inform the United Nations when it begins its final plunge.

Predicting where it is going to come down would be impossible even in the days ahead of its landing, McDowell said.

“You really can’t steer these things,” he said in 2016. “Even a couple of days before it re-enters 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.”

McDowell said a slight change in atmospheric conditions could nudge the landing site “from one continent to the next”.

There have been many uncontrolled re-entries of larger spacecraft and none have ever been reported to have caused injuries to people.

In 1991 the Soviet Union’s 20-tonne Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth while still docked to another 20-tonne spacecraft called Cosmos 1686. They broke up over Argentina, scattering debris over the town of Capitán Bermúdez.

Nasa’s enormous 77-tonne Skylab space station came hurtling to Earth in an almost completely uncontrolled descent in 1979, with some large pieces landing outside Perth in Western Australia.

This article titled "Tiangong-1: Chinese space station will crash to Earth within months" was written by Michael Slezak, for theguardian.com on Saturday 14 October 2017 12.43am

Science

A child's gender can be detected in their speech from age five, research says

The gender of children can be picked up from their speech from as young as five years old,… Read more

Artwork hidden under Picasso painting revealed by x-ray

Wrapped in a mustard coloured blanket with a white scarf and her head on one side, Pablo Picasso’s… Read more

How can I make money from my DNA?

If you unlock the secrets of your DNA by paying a company to read your genes, behind the scenes it… Read more

Trump's moon shot might be steered by a woman, says Nasa chief

There is at least a one in three chance that the first human to set foot on the moon this century… Read more

Conservators race against time to save film cels of classic Disney characters

Hands clasped, silver slippers together and with an air of gentle condescension, Snow White looks… Read more

Breakthrough as scientists grow sheep embryos containing human cells

Growing human organs inside other animals has taken another step away from science-fiction, with… Read more

Earthlings likely to welcome alien life rather than panicking, study shows

“The fear I felt was no rational fear, but a panic terror,” wrote HG Wells, describing his… Read more

George Church: "Genome sequencing is like the internet back in the late 1980s."

A new genetic testing company called Nebula Genomics wants to help people profit from their own… Read more

Brian Sissons obituary

Brian Sissons, who has died aged 91, mapped and interpreted the effects of the Ice Age on the… Read more

Homo erectus may have been a sailor – and able to speak

They had bodies similar to modern humans, could make tools, and were possibly the first to cook.… Read more