Environment & Science

Chinese space lab set to crash to Earth on Sunday night

Students gathered in a school in Beijing raise their hands to ask Chinese female astrounaut Wang Yaping questions as she delivers a lesson to them from Tiangong-1 space module in the morning of June 20, 2013.
Students gathered in a school in Beijing raise their hands to ask Chinese female astrounaut Wang Yaping questions as she delivers a lesson to them from Tiangong-1 space module in the morning of June 20, 2013.
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China's defunct Tiangong 1 space station hurtled toward Earth on Sunday and was expected to re-enter the atmosphere within hours.

Most of the craft should burn up on re-entry, so scientists said it poses only a slight risk to people on the ground.

The European Space Agency forecast that the station, whose name translates as "Heavenly Palace," will re-enter sometime between Sunday night and early Monday GMT. The Chinese space agency said it should happen during the course of Monday Beijing time.

The Aerospace Corp. predicted Tiangong 1's re-entry would take place within 2 ½ hours of either side of 0010 GMT Monday (8.10 p.m. Sunday EDT.)

The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module, state media reported.
The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module, state media reported.
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Based on the space station's orbit, it will come back to Earth somewhere 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south, a range covering most of the United States, China, Africa, southern Europe, Australia and South America. Out of range are Russia, Canada and northern Europe.

Only about 10 percent of the bus-sized, 8.5-ton spacecraft will likely survive being burned up on re-entry, mainly its heavier components such as its engines. The chances of any one person being hit by debris are considered less than one in a trillion.

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.

Chinese astronaut Liu Yang of the Tiangong-1/Shenzhou-9 Manned Space Docking and Rendezvous Mission delegation poses for photographs during the opening ceremony of an exhibition on China's first manned space docking mission in Hong Kong on August 12, 2012.
Chinese astronaut Liu Yang of the Tiangong-1/Shenzhou-9 Manned Space Docking and Rendezvous Mission delegation poses for photographs during the opening ceremony of an exhibition on China's first manned space docking mission in Hong Kong on August 12, 2012.
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The station played host to two crewed missions 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.

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.

The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module.
The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images