The China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) team has announced that they have officially lost contact with the out of control Tiangong-1, China’s first space lab.
Launched in September 2011, the unit provided a home for space experiments, and well as a test bed for various docking procedures.
The spacecraft was designed for two years of service, but was used for another two and a half years in a sleep mode strictly for monitoring purposes. The information gathered would prove vital for the development of their larger Tiangong-2 module, and eventually a fully functional space station designated as Tiangong-3.
When satellites reach their end of life, they can either be moved into the graveyard orbit (supersynchronous orbit) or de-orbited back into Earth’s atmosphere where they burn up into harmless pieces.
As this space module was kept in low earth orbit, it was set for deorbit between the end of 2016 into early 2017.
In the de-orbit phase, ground control would slowly guide the spacecraft along a calculated path so that once it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it would burn up into tiny pieces somewhere over the ocean, to limit any harm to the human population.
Unfortunately, the CMSE has lot control of the spacecraft, meaning that they have no idea when it will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. They also do not know its exact trajectory, meaning that the unit could easily burn up over a crowded city, causing harm to people below.
Scientists are worried about the situation, as re-entry may not be enough to completely destroy the module. They estimate that some components may survive the burn, with falling chunks weighing as much 100kg (220 pounds).
The space agency continues to monitor the module’s progress, in efforts to issue early warning notices should it disintegrate over a crowded city.
Hopefully no one ends up like George in Dead Like Me.