Chinese authorities confirm the eight-ton ‘Heavenly Palace’ lab will re-enter the atmosphere sometime in 2017 with some parts likely to hit Earth
The announcement appeared to confirm months of speculation that China had lost control of the 10.4m-long module after it suffered some kind of technical or mechanical failure.
Jonathan McDowell, renowned Harvard astrophysicist and space industry enthusiast, said the announcement suggested China had lost control of the station and that it would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere “naturally.”
If this is the case, it would be impossible to predict where the debris from the space station will land.
“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 its going to come down.”
McDowell said a slight change in atmospheric conditions could nudge the landing site “from one continent to the next”.
While most of the eight tons of space station would melt as it passes through the atmosphere, McDowell said some parts, such as the rocket engines, were so dense that they wouldn’t burn up completely.
“There will be lumps of about 100kg or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you,” he said.