The Chinese space agency has apparently lost control of its Tiangong 1 mini-space station, which is expected to return to Earth as a fireball.
The Middle Kingdom's state media reported in March that the space station's systems had been shut down and the platform was officially retired. Now there's word from the science community that the controllers no longer have command of its systems and won't be able to bring it back down to earth in a controlled manner.
"It wouldn't surprise me if that's the case, there have been rumors about it on the mailing lists for months," Jonathan Tate, director of the UK's Spaceguard Centre, told The Reg.
"But, and I'm sorry to not be dramatic about this, there's no real danger to us on Earth. The space station is quite small and almost all of it – apart from a few chunks – won't make it to sea level. Even then, since 70 per cent of the planet's surface is water, the chances of it causing injury are minute."
There's no immediate likelihood of a reentry for the moment, since the spacecraft appears to be in a stable orbit. It made its last orbital correction in December 2015, and for the moment appears to be in no position to burn up.
The 34-foot (10.4-metre) long space station was launched in September 2011, and has been used by the Chinese to practice manual and computer-controlled docking procedures, as well as experiments with microgravity.
Later this year, the Chinese are expected to loft Tiangong 2, a slightly larger orbital station capable of supporting three astronauts and equipped with two docking ports for replenishment missions by automated spacecraft.
By 2022, Tiangong 3 should be in orbit and will form the basis of a multi-unit space station that will be built up over the years, much as the International Space Station has been. China hopes to use Tiangong 3 as a staging point for trips to the moon and beyond.
In the meantime, no one is quite sure when Tiangong 1 will be coming back home and the Chinese have not given any indication as to when that might occur. But when it does, don't panic. ®