China’s Tiangong-1 space station is likely to come crashing through Earths’ atmosphere in 2017.
A Chinese official from the country’s manned space engineering division said that the space station, launched in 2011, had “comprehensively fulfilled its historic mission” and that it’d been expected to come back down in the second half of 2017. However, people who have been following Tiangong-1’s progress have said that China had lost control of it after some kind of failure onboard.
China hasn’t been clear with what the failure was. This is in keeping with the country laying claim to having become a ‘space superpower’ after the station’s launch in 2011. ‘Tiangong’ means ‘heavenly palace’. It was visited by Chinese astronauts in 2012 and 2013.
In late 2015, China said it had stopped performing experiments with the space station amid speculations that they had lost their ability to communicate with the module.
In the third week of September this year, China had launched the Tiangong-2, the successor to the Tiangong-1. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, had speculated on Twitter that once the successor came online, the Tiangong-1 would be dumped in the southern Pacific Ocean.
Once Tiangong-2 is operational, it's possible Tiangong-1 will be dumped in the S Pacific for disposal, if its engines are still working.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) September 15, 2016
However, after today’s announcement, McDowell also told the Guardian that Tiangong-1 would come down “naturally”. The article also reported that some parts of the station were too dense to become completely burnt through the atmosphere and would survive until they crashed on the surface.
Where exactly the parts might come down is impossible to say without knowing where they begin to reenter the atmosphere and the weather conditions in those areas.
As part of its Tiangong space station program, China arims to have a full-fledged space station in orbit around Earth in the 2020s. To this end, the Tiangong-2 module will be joined by a Tiangong-3 module in 2022.