FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2011, file image taken from video from China’s CCTV via AP Video, China’s Shenzhou-8 spacecraft is docked with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space station. China’s defunct and believed out-of-control Tiangong 1 space station is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime in the coming days, although the risk to people and property on the ground is considered low. (CCTV via AP Video, File)

China’s defunct space lab hurtling toward Earth for re-entry

China’s defunct and believed out-of-control Tiangong 1 space station is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime in the coming days

China’s defunct and reportedly out-of-control Tiangong 1 space station is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime this weekend. It poses only a slight risk to people and property on the ground, since most of the bus-size, 8.5-ton vehicle is expected to burn up on re-entry, although space agencies don’t know exactly when or where that will happen.

Below are some questions and answers about the station, its re-entry and the past and future of China’s ambitious space program.

___

WHAT WILL HAPPEN AND HOW GREAT IS THE DANGER?

The European Space Agency predicts the station will re-enter the atmosphere between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon — an estimate it calls “highly variable,” likely because the ever-changing shape of the upper atmosphere affects the speed of objects falling into it.

The Chinese space agency’s latest estimate puts re-entry between Saturday and Wednesday.

Western space experts say they believe China has lost control of the station. China’s chief space laboratory designer Zhu Zongpeng has denied Tiangong was out of control, but hasn’t provided specifics on what, if anything, China is doing to guide the craft’s re-entry.

Based on Tiangong 1’s orbit, it will come to Earth somewhere between latitudes of 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south, or roughly somewhere over most of the United States, China, Africa, southern Europe, Australia and South America. Out of range are Russia, Canada and northern Europe.

Based on its size, only about 10 per cent of the spacecraft will likely survive being burned up on re-entry, mainly its heavier components such as its engines. The chances of anyone person on Earth being hit by debris is considered less than one in a trillion.

Ren Guoqiang, China’s defence ministry spokesman, told reporters Thursday that Beijing has been briefing the United Nations and the international community about Tiangong 1’s re-entry through multiple channels.

Related: B.C. space sleuth discovers NASA satellite not a ‘piece of space junk’

___

HOW COMMON IS MAN-MADE SPACE DEBRIS?

Debris from satellites, space launches and the International Space Station enters the atmosphere every few months, but only one person is known to have been hit by any of it: American woman Lottie Williams, who was struck but not injured by a falling piece of a U.S. Delta II rocket while exercising in an Oklahoma park in 1997.

Most famously, America’s 77-ton Skylab crashed through the atmosphere in 1979, spreading pieces of wreckage near the southwestern Australia city of Perth, which fined the U.S. $400 for littering.

The breakup on re-entry of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 killed all seven astronauts and sent more than 80,000 pieces of debris raining down on a large swath of the Southern United States. No one on the ground was injured.

In 2011, NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite was considered to pose a slight risk to the public when it came down to Earth 20 years after its launching. Debris from the 6-ton satellite ended up falling into the Pacific Ocean, causing no damage.

China’s own space program raised major concerns after it used a missile to destroy an out-of-service Chinese satellite in 2007, creating a large and potentially dangerous cloud of debris.

Related: Researchers spot space rock that lit up B.C. Interior

___

WHAT IS TIANGONG 1 AND WHAT WAS IT USED FOR?

Launched in 2011, Tiangong 1 was China’s first space station, serving as an experimental platform for bigger projects such as the Tiangong 2 launched in September 2016 and a future permanent Chinese space station.

The station, whose name translates as “Heavenly Palace,” played host to two crewed missions that included China’s first female astronauts and served as a test platform for perfecting docking procedures and other operations. Its last crew departed in 2013 and contact with it was cut in 2016. Since then it has been orbiting gradually closer and closer to Earth on its own while being monitored.

The station had two modules, one for its solar panels and engines, and one for a pair of astronauts to live in and conduct experiments. A third astronaut slept in the Shenzhou spaceships that docked with the station, which also contained facilities for personal hygiene and food preparation.

___

HOW ADVANCED IS CHINA’S SPACE PROGRAM?

Since China conducted its first crewed mission in 2003 — becoming only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so — it has taken on increasingly ambitious projects, including staging a spacewalk and landing its Jade Rabbit rover on the moon.

China now operates the Tiangong 2 precursor space station facility, while the permanent station’s 20-ton core module is due to be launched this year. The completed 60-ton station is set to come into full service in 2022 and operate for at least a decade.

China was excluded from the 420-ton International Space Station mainly due to U.S. legislation barring such co-operation and concerns over the Chinese space program’s strong military connections. China’s space program remains highly secretive and some experts have complained that a lack of information about Tiangong 1’s design has made it harder to predict what might happen upon its re-entry.

A mission to land another rover on Mars and bring back samples is set to launch in 2020. China also plans to become the first country to soft-land a probe on the far side of the moon.

Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Chaos and creativity reign at Alberni’s Rollin Art Centre

The next art exhibit at the Rollin Art Centre will be an… Continue reading

Alberni RCMP kept busy with 170 calls over May long weekend

Detachment answers calls from fatal vehicle crash to man with a gun, trailer thefts

Ucluelet shakes up emergency services, removes manager, eyes new sirens

District has eliminated Emergency and Environmental Manager position

Port Alberni’s Walk for Dog Guides has a new look, new route

Bosley’s comes on board as sponsor for May 27 event

Martin Mars waterbombers’ firefighting days are past: Coulson

The famed Martin Mars air tankers continue to draw interest from potential… Continue reading

VIDEO: After the floods, comes the cleanup as Grand Forks rebuilds

Business owners in downtown wonder how long it will take for things to go back to normal

PNE’s Summer Night Concerts by Village People, Lauper, Goo Goo Dolls, more

Mostly retro sounds at this year’s fair in Vancouver, starting Aug. 18

Notley to skip western premiers meeting today, but slams leader who’s there

Notley told reporters that B.C. Premier John Horgan is trying to shut down the Trans Mountain pipeline

No suitors emerge for pipeline project stake as Kinder Morgan deadline looms

Analysts and observers remain perplexed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s comment last week that “plenty of investors would be interested in taking on this project”.

Energy wells plugged as Hawaii’s volcano sends lava nearby

A spike in gas levels could prompt a mass evacuation in Hawaii

Trump seethes over Russia probe, calls for end to ‘SPYGATE’

“SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!” Trump said on Twitter

Grads receive BC Transit passes

BC Transit provides passes to graduating students in more than 50 communities

Philip Roth, fearless and celebrated author, dies at 85

Literary agent Andrew Wylie said Roth died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure.

Woman’s death near Tofino prompts warning about ‘unpredictable’ ocean

Ann Wittenberg was visiting Tofino for her daughter Victoria Emon’s wedding

Most Read