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Space station falls out of the sky

by Floro Mercene

The Chinese space station Tiangong-1, which translates to “Heavenly Palace”, is flying out of control and is on a collision course with Earth. It is an 8.5- ton spacecraft, China’s first prototype space station, serving as both a manned laboratory and an experimental testbed to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. Launched unmanned on 29 September 2011, it is the first operational component of the Tiangong program, which aims to place a larger, modular station into orbit by 2023.

The lab had served as a base for space experiments for four and a half years, two years longer than originally planned. It hosted two three-person crews, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012.

Back in 2016, Chinese officials said that they had lost control of the space station, which would eventually de-orbit, breaking apart and mostly burning up in the planet’s atmosphere sometime in the latter half of 2017. In May 2017, China told the United Nations that the lab would reenter Earth between October and April 2018. The odds that the crashing craft will damage aviation or ground activities is “very low,” China told the United Nations, adding that it would closely monitor Tiangong -1’s descent.

Uncontrolled crashes of larger spacecraft, while rare, have happened before. The Soviet Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth in 1991, while NASA’s Skylab space station fell over Western Australia in 1979.

A controlled descent, where engineers could definitively push the space station to burn up over uninhabited land, would obviously be ideal. But the fact that this is uncontrolled is still not necessarily a cause for alarm. Skylab also made an uncontrolled descent back to Earth, and that 200,000 pound behemoth didn’t hit anyone. Parts of it fell in the Australian Outback, and though some pieces of fairly large debris scattered across a swath of the continent, no one was hit.

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