The first space station lofted into orbit by China is coming down next year, the country's space agency has confirmed.
The Tiangong-1 mini-station was launched on 29 September 2011, and has been visited by three manned missions. Its size is nothing on the scale of the International Space Station – Tiangong-1 is just 12 meters long and 3.3 meters wide (40 x 11 feet) – but the Chinese authorities say that they got good science out of the orbital platform.
Wu Ping, deputy director of the Chinese manned space engineering office, said that Tiangong-1 had "comprehensively fulfilled its historical mission," and would be returning to Earth late next year. "Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling," she said.
What she didn't say is that China has lost control of the space station. Large chunks of hardware are usually deliberately deorbitted, with the owners bringing them down so that they crash harmlessly into the sea. Since China isn't doing this, it's safe to say that they're not able to, confirming reports earlier this year that the space station has suffered a serious glitch.
In March, the Chinese authorities said it was retiring the space station, but Skywatcher message boards quickly lit up with rumors that Tiangong-1 was out of control. Jonathan Tate, director of the UK's Spaceguard Centre, told The Reg there was no danger to the public, since most of the space station will burn up on reentry.
Wu confirmed that the falling space station is unlikely to cause any problems. The space agency will publish a track of its expected path closer to the time, and warnings will be issued if it gets too close to anything valuable.
Tiangong-1 is orbiting 370 kilometers (230 miles) up, and is suffering from some drag from the upper layers of our atmosphere. That drag will eventually cause the deorbiting, and the exact time is difficult to foresee.
In the meantime, China will focus its attention on the Tiangong-2 space station, which was sent up on Monday. The new facility can host two taikonauts for 30 days at a time and will be used to test docking procedures and space science. ®