China’s Tiangong-1 (or “Heavenly Place 1) space station first launched in 2011 with a two-year service span.
Now, scientists are expecting 220-pound parts of the decaying 8.5-ton space laboratory may crash into Earth in the upcoming months.
Chinese officials confirmed last year that they lost control of the country’s first orbiting space station when they failed to correct its altitude.
According to the Guardian, officials initially predicted the space station would crash between October 2017 and April 2018, but Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said the crash could actually occur earlier in that time frame.
“Now that [its] perigee is below 300km [186 miles] and it is in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher,” McDowell told the Guardian. “I expect it will come down a few months from now – late 2017 or early 2018.”
Chinese officials aren’t expecting much harm from the falling debris. But they told the United Nations “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” they will keep the committee informed as the crash nears, the Guardian reported.
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly when and where the crash will occur, McDowell said.
In fact, a minor change in atmospheric conditions could move the landing site “from one continent to the next,” he said.
But it’s not the first time a spacecraft has uncontrollably descended toward the planet. NASA’s had several incidents - including the larger Skylab (77.5-ton) — and there haven’t been any reported deaths or injuries in the past.