22 Sep 2016

China space station to fall to Earth

11:45 am on 22 September 2016

China's first space station is expected to fall back to Earth in the second half of 2017, amid speculation authorities have lost control of it.

China launched Tiangong-1 in 2011

China launched Tiangong-1 in 2011 Photo: AFP

The Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace" laboratory was launched in 2011 as part of an ambitious Chinese plan to catch up with other space powers.

However, a senior space official said the lab had "comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission".

The lab is currently intact and orbiting 370km above the ground.

Speaking at a press conference last week, deputy director of the manned space engineering office Wu Ping said: "Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling."

She added that it was unlikely to affect aviation activities or cause damage to the ground.

But in comments reported by the Guardian newspaper, Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell suggested China might have lost control of the station.

"You really can't steer these things," Dr McDowell 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 its going to come down."

Most of the 8.5-tonne station would melt as it passed through the atmosphere but some parts, such as the rocket engines, were so dense they might not burn up completely, he said.

Earlier this month, China launched its second trial space station, called Tiangong-2, in a bid to operate a crewed outpost in orbit by 2022.