Those who have watched ‘Gravity’ would remember the scene where Sandra Bullock, aboard a space station accelerating to smash into Earth’s face, struggles to escape from a very ugly death. If you are keen enough, you would still remember the name of the station as the Tiangong-1, China’s first space station.
Tiangong-1 is again in news for a similar reason- it is falling to earth. But wait, you have good news; Sandra Bullock is not in it.
As per a statement made by Chinese space administration (CNSA), Tiangong has gone rogue, with ground station having no control over on the station. The station is solely under the influence of earth’s gravity and scientists have concluded that it could re-enter by early 2018.
Tiangong-1, Chinese for ‘Heavenly Palace’, was launched aboard a Long March-2F launch vehicle on 29th September 2011. The space station was used as a technology demonstrator and was only intended for short stay of utmost 3 crew members. The space station paved the way for China’s future manned missions, with another launch of Tiangong-2 happening in 15th September 2016. With operations extending its proposed lifetime by two years, telemetry with Tiangong got severed and no further communications were made further. On September 2016, Chinese officials issued statement that they have lost control of the station. Adding on the statement, officials were expecting de-orbit anywhere between late 2017 and early 2018.
The worry has escalated after European Space Agency (ESA), issued a statement that multiple European countries are at risk of falling unburnt debris. Even though most space debris burns up on re-entry, the 8.5 tonne station could produce some unburnt debris and since telemetry is lost, region of splash down could not be triangulated. “Owing to the geometry of the station’s orbit, we can already exclude the possibility that any fragments will fall over any spot further north than 43 degrees north or further south than 43 degrees south,” says Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office. These latitudes indicate that Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria and Greece could all be in the firing line, should any larger pieces of debris from the station fail to break up completely in the atmosphere.
While most re-entry are controlled, so that they can be made to burn over oceans, thereby preventing danger on public. However, when telemetry is lost, the re-entry can only be predicted vaguely, and area where debris could possibly fall can’t be triangulated without very wide uncertainties.
To minimize damage to public, ESA is heading Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Multiple European space agencies, including NASA, Roscosmos of Russia, JAXA of Japan, ISRO of India, KARI of South Korea and the China National Space Administration are part of the team and will pool their resources to track the falling palace.
Fortunately, no one was ever seriously injured by falling space debris, since our planet is mighty big. Well, you never know what could be falling over you, so keep an eye out next time you take a stroll through the streets.