China’s first space station will meet a fiery end next year when the 8.5-tonne module comes crashing down to Earth, amid concerns authorities have lost control of the craft.
The Tiangong-1 space station was launched in September 2011 and currently orbits Earth at an altitude of 230 miles (370km).
But in July, amateur astronomers suggested China had “lost control” of the satellite, after Chinese media reported the country’s space agency had struggled to get in contact with it.
Officials have now confirmed that after four and a half years in orbit, Tiangong-1 (meaning Heavenly Palace) is expected to plummet to Earth in late 2017.
Speaking at a satellite launch for the space station’s successor in the Gobi Desert in northern China, officials from China’s manned space programme said the craft had ended its service in March this year having “comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission”.
Wu Ping, deputy director of the manned space engineering office said: “Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling.”
According to Space.com the less than precise landing time indicates the operators had lost control of the unit, as if they were still able to communicate with it, they could steer it to “a guided re-entry over an empty stretch of ocean at a specified time”.
Like other lost satellites, it’s likely that the freefalling station will burn up on its way back into Earth and come back down in smaller chunks of molten metal rather than with a big crash.
However, some denser engine parts are unlikely to burn up completely and could potentially cause problems on the ground.
Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the Guardian the announcement suggested the doomed craft would now re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere naturally, making it near impossible to predict where any debris will fall.
“You really can’t steer these things,” he said. “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.”
“There will be lumps of about 100kg or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you,” he added.
He said that even small changes in atmospheric conditions would be enough to nudge the craft “from one continent to the next”.
But according to Chinese news agency Xinhua, Ms Wu said the space station’s re-entry was “unlikely to affect aviation activities or cause damage to the ground”.
“China has always highly valued the management of space debris, conducting research and tests on space debris mitigation and cleaning,” Wu said.
The most incredible space images of Earth
The most incredible space images of Earth
1/30 Striking Africa
Explore ESA astronaut Tim Peake's stunning photos of Earth, taken from the International Space Station during his six month mission (captions by Tom Peake)
"The striking colour and texture of Africa Illizi, Algeria"
2/30 Favourite Reef
"Every day spent living in space is a great day, but today was particularly special. I got to speak with one of my inspirational heroes Prof Stephen Hawking and his amazing daughter Lucy, who developed the Principia Space Diary to engage children with STEM subjects. As well as talking about dark matter, quantum entanglement, alien life and light beam powered nanocraft we also got to see an amazing pass over the Bahamas and this - my favourite reef smile emoticon"
3/30 Russia's north-east coast
"Sunrise approaching Russia's frozen north-east coast"
4/30 Hello London
"Hello London! Fancy a run? :) #LondonMarathon"
"50 shades of blue: Bahamas"
"Snow on the mountains next to Yinchuan in China"
7/30 Rocket flames in Africa
"Is it just me or do I see some rocket flames down there? These strange land features are in the Erg Iguidi desert, with its yellow stripes of sand stretching from Algeria to northern Mauritania in the Sahara"
8/30 Stunning colours
"Sunlight reflecting the stunning colours of this Himalayan lake"
9/30 The real Everest
"The real thing: found Everest! Last picture turned out to be third-tallest mountain Kanchengjunga"
10/30 Go Exomars
"Go #Exomars – have a great mission. Earth has more in common with Mars than you might think… #AfricaArt"
"Amazingly clear view of Tenerife"
12/30 Midday winter sun
"Some midday winter sun glinting off Greenland’s snow-capped peaks"
13/30 Sand dunes
"Great texture in these huge sand dunes, Saudi Arabia"
14/30 Dragon Dam
"The dam makes this river look like a dragon’s tail. Oahe Dam north of Pierre, South Dakota in the United States. (North is to the right)"
15/30 Smoking volcano
"Spotted volcano smoking away on Russia’s far east coast this morning – heat has melted snow around top"
16/30 New Zealand
"New Zealand looking stunning in the sunshine. Mt Cook centre left with the Grand Plateau to the front and Mt Tasman (3,497m) to the right of the Grand Plateau. Fox Glacier in the middle then Franz Josef curving right. Tasman Lake (largest at front) is at the foot of the Tasman glacier which runs along the front of them. The Hooker Glacier flows out behind Mt Cook coming down to meet the Mueller Glacier on the left of the photo. The Murchison Glacier is at the front of the photo running parallel with the Tasman Glacier"
17/30 Plankton bloom
"Another great pass over Patagonia and a swirling plankton bloom off the coast"
"We don’t often get such clear views of Alaska"
19/30 Lights along the Nile
"Lights along the Nile stretching into the distance from Cairo"
"The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia"
"I’m guessing there was an impressive storm going on under that cumulonimbus cloud"
22/30 Night Sahara
"Night-time Sahara – you can really see how thin the Earth’s atmosphere is in this picture"
"Tokyo and Japanese coast. This image shows most of Japan with the largest mass of light corresponding to Tokyo. The white lights on the left are fishing boats"
24/30 Morning sun volcanoes
"Morning sun striking active volcanoes in Guatemala"
25/30 Tapajos River
"The vast waters of the Tapajos river, Amazonia"
"Beautiful glacial river water flowing from this Patagonian ice field Lake Viedma, West is up"
27/30 Dubai Palms
"Minus the #Dragon photobomb this time..."
28/30 Sediment in Ethiopia
"Sediment spilling into this mountain lake, Ethiopia"
"We have phases of ‘short nights’ on the International Space Station – sunlight is nearly always visible right now. No prizes for guessing where this is…"
30/30 Panama Canal
"From one mighty ocean to another – ships passing through the Panama canal"
Tiangong-2, China’s replacement for the space lab, was successfully launched aboard a Long March 2F rocket on 15 September from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in north west China.