China says its space station is falling back to earth

A photo of the giant screen at the Jiuquan space center shows the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft approching Tiangong-1 module for the automatic docking on July 18, 2012. Three Chinese astronauts entered an orbiting module for the first time, a key step towards the nation's first space station, a move broadcast live on China's state television network, as China aims to complete construction of a space station by 2020, a goal that requires it to perfect docking technology.  CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

A screen at Jiuquan space center shows the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft approching Tiangong-1 module for the automatic docking on July 18, 2012. Photo by STR/AFP/GettyImages

LOW EARTH ORBIT, Space — China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, officially ended its service on March 21, and now it looks like it’s going out in a blaze of glory.

The station, whose named means “Heavenly Palace,” is falling back to earth. Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reports that officials said in a news conference last week that the station will burn up sometime next year, although the space agency could not decisively say when or where, which appears to confirm what some experts have long suspected: China has lost control of the station.

The 34-foot-long laboratory was launched in September 2011 and was home to a total of six Chinese “taikonauts” (two separate missions with three crewmembers) including Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space.

Normally, when a decommissioned satellite or space station is retired, it falls back into the atmosphere in a controlled burn, and is scheduled to make sure the burn happens over the ocean, in order to mitigate the danger to people.

Space.com surmised that China’s inability to give a precise date on the station’s re-entry implies it has lost the ability to control the 9.4 ton spacecraft. This means that while it is still unlikely that falling debris will land in populated areas, it is possible.

It’s simply a matter of chance. Fortunately, we live on a big planet, so the odds of the Tiangong-1 crashing in your back yard are slim. Still, keep an eye to the sky next year.