Geographies in Depth

China's first space station is set to crash back down to earth

A model of the Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft ( R) docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module (L) and three Chinese astronauts is displayed during a news conference at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in northwest China's Gansu province, June 15, 2012. The Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft will be launched at 18:37 (10:37 GMT) on June 16, 2012, according to a decision made by China's manned space docking program headquarters, Xinhua News Agency reported.  REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)

China's first space station is heading to earth after they lost contact in 2016. Image: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Dave Mosher
Science and Technology Correspondent, Business Insider
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Space

China's first space station, called Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace," will soon explode over Earth into a rain of fiery debris.

The Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit research company, has released its newest prediction about the derelict spacecraft doom. Tiangong-1 may reenter Earth's atmosphere in early April, give or take a week — which means the dead spacecraft could come crashing down as soon as late March.

When it does, extreme heat and pressure caused by plowing through the air at more than 15,000 mph will destroy the 8.5-ton vessel. Not everything may vanish, though.

There's a good chance that gear and hardware left on board could survive intact all the way to the ground, according to Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer who specializes in atmospheric reentry. That durability is thanks to Tiangong-1's onion-like layers of protective material.

"The thing about a space station is that it's typically got things on the inside," Ailor, who works for The Aerospace Corp., previously told Business Insider. "So basically, the heating will just strip these various layers off.

"If you've got enough layers, a lot of the energy is gone before a particular object falls out, it doesn't get hot, and it lands on the ground."

For example, he said, after NASA's Columbia space shuttle broke up over the US in 2003, investigators recovered a working flight computer — an artifact that ultimately helped explain how the deadly incident happened.

Predicting Tiangong-1's crash to Earth

 An illustration of Tiangong-1, China's first space station, orbiting Earth.
Image: China Manned Space Agency

Tiangong-1 is a two-room space station for two taikonauts, or Chinese astronauts. It has a volume of 15 cubic meters, or about 1/60th of the volume of the International Space Station (which is about as long as a football field).

Though China superseded Tiangong-1 in 2016 with Tiangong-2, space experts hailed it as a major achievement for the nation's space program, since it helped pioneer a permanent Chinese presence in orbit.

"It conducted six successive rendezvous and dockings with spacecraft Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9, and Shenzhou-10 and completed all assigned missions, making important contributions to China's manned space exploration activities," said a memo that China submitted in May to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

In the memo, China said it lost contact with the spacecraft on March 16, 2016, after it "fully fulfilled its historic mission."

By May 2017, Tiangong-1 was coasting about 218 miles above Earth and dropping by about 525 feet a day, the memo said. Its altitude has since plummeted to nearly 155 miles, according to the Aerospace Corporation's latest data, published on February 27, 2018.

"For any vehicle like this, the thing that brings them down is atmospheric drag," Ailor said. "Why there's a lot of uncertainty in the predictions is that it depends on what the sun's doing, to a large measure."

The sun can unleash solar storms and solar flares — bursts of X-rays and ultraviolet light — that heat Earth's outer atmosphere, causing the air to expand and rise. That forces low-flying objects like Tiangong-1 to plow through denser gases.

"This puts just a little bit of a higher force on these objects that causes them to come down," Ailor said.

An analysis of the combined effects of solar activity and Tiangong-1's orbital speed, direction, and altitude, as well as other factors, helped the Aerospace Corporation provide its most recent estimate of an early-April de-orbit.

Before the big moment, however, the company will refine its estimates as conditions in space change.

What will happen when China's space station is destroyed

Tiangong-1 is likely to crash over the ocean, as water covers about 71% of Earth's surface. But there's a decent chance some pieces may strike land as it breaks up over a long and thin oval footprint.

"The whole footprint length for something like this could be 1,000 miles or so," Ailor said, with heavier pieces at the front and lighter debris toward the back.

If anyone is lucky enough to witness Tiangong-1's atmospheric breakup from an airplane, it may look similar to the destruction of the European Space Agency's 14-ton Automated Transfer Vehicle.

The ATV was an expendable spacecraft that used to resupply the ISS. Once astronauts and cosmonauts unloaded its supplies, it was filled with garbage and sent careening back to Earth.

When asked for comment on Tiangong-1's threat to ongoing NASA missions, the space agency told Business Insider it "actually doesn't track any debris."

Ailor says pieces of China's space station are "really unlikely" to hit anyone or anything on Earth.

According to The Aerospace Corp.'s website, the probability "is about 1 million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot."

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"It's not impossible, but since the beginning of the space age ... a woman who was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma is the only one we're aware of who's been touched by a piece of space debris," he said.

Should a hunk of titanium, a computer, or another piece smash through a roof or windshield, however, international space law covers compensation for victims.

"It's China's responsibility if someone gets hurt or property gets damaged by this," NASA's representative said.

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