Within the next few months, China’s 8.5-ton space laboratory will crash into Earth. But, no one knows where it will hit.
According to reports, Tiangong 1, in Chinese translates to “Heavenly Palace,” is China’s first space lab. China launched Tiangong1 in 2011, and the laboratory worked as a prototype for a permanent space station that the country plans to construct. But six years after the lab was launched into orbit, the facility became unresponsive and is now expected to come crashing down to Earth.
Last year, Chinese officials confirmed they had lost control of the facility and that it would crash into Earth sometime in 2017. Last May, China told the United Nations that the lab would re-enter Earth between October and April 2018. That said, much of the lab is expected to burn up before entering the United States. But, Jonathan McDowell an astrophysicist from Harvard University told The Guardian, that pieces weighing up to 220 pounds could still make it to the Earth’s surface.
“You really can’t steer these things,” Dowell said. “Even a couple of days before it reenters, 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.”
While this may seem insane, this is not the first time this has happened. The Soviet Salyut 7 space station crashed into Earth in 1991. Even the United States’ NASA Skylab fell over Western Australia in 1979.
Despite the setback, China is launched Tiangong 2, a second experimental station in 2016 and plans to have a permanently manned space station in orbit by 2020.