China Seems to Have Lost Control of Its Falling Space Lab
Tiangong-1 should burn up in the atmosphere sometime in 2017
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 20, 2016 4:55 PM CDT
The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft docks with the Tiangong-1 space lab in 2012. The lab is currently falling back to Earth and is scheduled to burn up in the atmosphere sometime in the second half of 2017.   (AP Photo/Beijing Aerospace Control Center via Xinhua)

(Newser) – In 2017, watch for falling space labs. China announced last week that its first space lab, Tiangong-1, would be falling back to Earth—somewhere—sometime in the second half of next year, Xinhuanet reports. According to Popular Mechanics, the lack of specifics in the previous sentence seems to confirm the theory that China lost control of the space lab some time ago, otherwise it would probably be scheduled to burn up in the atmosphere somewhere over the ocean. As it is, there's a chance—albeit a small one—that pieces of the space lab that don't burn up in the atmosphere could land in a populated area. It's also possible some of the debris could hit a satellite, Space.com reports.

China says it will release a forecast of the fall of the 34-foot-long, 9.4-ton Tiangong-1 "if necessary." Experts believe the space lab was damaged in some way that made China lose control of it, hence the lack of a controlled re-entry. Tiangong-1, currently orbiting about 230 miles above the Earth, was launched in 2011 and decommissioned last March after it had—in the words of one official—"comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission." China is scheduled to launch its replacement, Tiangong-2, on Thursday. The country, which doesn't use the International Space Station, is working toward the launch of its own space station around 2022. (China recently completed the world's biggest telescope.)