Home Frontiers Not a Bird or Plane: Chinese Space Station Tiangong 1 Falling from...

Not a Bird or Plane: Chinese Space Station Tiangong 1 Falling from Space

What are the chances of a space station like Taingong 1 coming down on or near to you?


At some point in the near future, it’s relatively plausible that you will look up into the sky and think, “Is it a bird, is it a plane?” And the answer would be No, it’s Tiangong 1, a Chinese Space station falling to Earth. Oh, and no the 1980’s hit its Raining Men has nothing to do with it, this station is devoid of life. However, there is a problem … No one knows where on Terra firma it will crash and burn.

Heads Up its Tiangong 1

China is one of only a handful of lone nations to have successfully launched satellites into Earth orbit. And it’s also a member of an even more prestigious club. It’s one of only three countries that has had its own space station.

Launched in 2011, Tiangong 1, was a triumph for the communist state, announcing it on the world stage as a real super-power. However, from a technological standpoint, it was a considerable leap, as the first Chinese astronaut orbited the Earth in 2003.

However, what goes up must inevitably come down, and how that happens can be up to the gods/luck.

Decommissioning a Space Station

As with almost everything else human-made, the space station has a shelf life. Originally, the plan was to decommission Tiangong 1 and bring it down to Earth in 2013, in a controlled manner.

However, due to the need for some extra science, its mission was extended to 2016. At that point communications with the big metal object where cut, and that’s when the speculation began.

Tiangong 1 out of Control
Source: geralt / Pixabay

Out of Control

Silence, that’s what an army of international astronomers accused the Chinese National Space Agency of. They accused it of covering up the fact that they had lost control of the space station. Fortunately, after mounting pressure from around the world, and within its own country, it opened up with the truth.

Tiangong 1, an 8.5-tonne flying object will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere out of control. Meaning the Chinese do not know whether it will impact on land or ocean.

As for when that will take place, that too is not certain; the National Space Agency first indicated late this year as possible. However, according to more recent reports, Tiangong 1 or Heavenly palace in Chinese could crash as late as April next year.

Tiangong 1 - No cause for concern
Source: RobinHiggins

A Cause for Concern?

Are you worried that a piece of debris traveling at 20,000 MPH is going to hit you, or cause damage? Don’t be, in the entire recorded history of incoming man-made space objects, no human being has been harmed.

Yes, it’s impossible to rule out in the future. But, it is far more likely that it will break up in the atmosphere and rain down on a unpopulated area.

As I’ve already eluded too, this kind of re-entry happens all the time, although there have been some mishaps. Back in 1978, a Russian satellite called Kosmos 954 came down in northern Canada. It deposited radioactive debris over a considerable area, which was subsequently cleaned up.

Almost exactly one year later Skylab, the U.S. A’s first space station littered the Australian desert, with pot marks and craters.

How does NASA crash a space station or satellite
Source: lace0182 / Pixabay

How Does NASA Bring Down Space Craft?

There is a place on Earth called the “Space Cemetery,” and it’s the most remote place on the planet. Now, if you’re not familiar with the above name, you may know it as “Point Nemo.” Or the “Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility.” Basically, it is a point in the Pacific Ocean that is the furthest away from civilization.

It’s about 1,400 miles or 2,250 km from the nearest bit of land. Making it the perfect place to control crash space stations and satellites.

How do space agencies like NASA target this area?

It’s all about timing, agencies literally, have to do the math, meaning speed, mass, and point of entry all add up. Correctly using all of that data leads to controlled crashes in that spot. Now, of course, not all satellites make it down to Earth, some just burn into dust. And that is down to mass and the materials used in construction.

Often the materials chosen to construct a none-manned craft are selected for their susceptibility to burn up. Doing so leads to the certainty of no problems down the line.

Unfortunately, Tiangong 1, is much larger than your average satellite. So it will break up not burn up, meaning the possibility of danger does exist.