Uncertainty continues over Chinese Space Laboratory Tiangong-1's fall to Earth; is it really under control?

Don't rule out possibility of catastrophe: Experts

Tiangong 1
Tiangong 1 Screengrab from ESA website

All eyes are on the sky as space buffs and astronomers are closely watching the upcoming re-entry of Chinese Space Laboratory Tiangong-1 to the Earth's atmosphere. Earlier, the Chinese Space Agency assured that the space laboratory will fall to the Earth in a controlled manner, but a new statement from the European Space Agency hints that ruling out a catastrophic event will be foolish.

Areas at risk

European Space Agency which is currently hosting an International monitoring effort said that the gigantic space laboratory may fall to the Earth between March 17 and April 21. However, the ESA says that this re-entry window is highly variable. The agency also added that predicting the exact time and location where the hit will take place is impossible at this point in time.

European Space Agency predicts that the re-entry will take place anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS, putting countries like Spain, France, Portugal, and Greece at risk. However, the agency assures that the areas outside these latitudes can be excluded from a possible hit.

Possibility of a dreaded catastrophe

As per experts, the spacecraft weighs more than 9.4 tonnes. Fortunately, it is believed that most of the parts of this space laboratory will burn down as it enters the atmosphere. But still, there are chances of some portions surviving and reaching the Earth's surface.

"Owing to the station's mass and construction materials, there is a possibility that some portions of it will survive and reach the surface. The date, time and geographic footprint of the reentry can only be predicted with large uncertainties. Even shortly before reentry, only a very large time and the geographical window can be estimated," said the European Space Agency in a statement.

Tiangong-1 was launched by China in 2011. The space laboratory was originally supposed to end its operation by 2013, but the Chinese Space Agency extended its lifespan for two more years. The laboratory finally ceased functioning in March 2016, and from then it has been floating in space without control.

This article was first published on January 16, 2018