China's Tiangong-1 Space Station Carrying Toxic Fuel Will Crash to Earth within Weeks

The Chinese space lab – Tiangong-1 – has been making headlines since 2016, when scientists at China's CNSA space agency admitted to having lost control of the lab, saying that it would be crash-landing on Earth. That put an end to months of speculation, as experts watching the path of the station suggested that it had been behaving strangely.

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Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1 is the Asian country's first space station that was hailed as a potent political symbol of China’s growing power but is now, expected to crash land in a few weeks, although, scientists have not been able to predict where the 8.5-tonne module will hit.

The US-funded Aerospace Corporation estimates Tiangong-1 will re-enter the atmosphere during the first week of April. The European Space Agency says the module will come down between March 24 and April 19, a Guardian report said. Aerospace in a statement said that there was “a chance that a small amount of debris” from the module will survive re-entry and hit the Earth.

A chart showing the descent of the Tiangong-1
 A chart showing the descent of the Tiangong-1 Photograph: Jonathan McDowell

“If this should happen, any surviving debris would fall within a region that is a few hundred kilometers in size,” said Aerospace, a research organization that advises government and private enterprise on space flight.

It warned that the space station might be carrying a highly toxic and corrosive fuel called hydrazine on board. The statement said the module is expected to re-enter somewhere between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes. The chances of re-entry were slightly higher in northern China, the Middle East, central Italy, northern Spain and the northern states of the US, New Zealand, Tasmania, parts of South America and southern Africa.

However, Aerospace insisted the chance of debris hitting anyone living in these nations was tiny. Tiangong was launched by China as part of a plan to show off its position as a global superpower. The country's space agency referred to the station as the “Heavenly Palace” and conducted a range of missions, some of which included astronauts.

It was used for both manned and unmanned missions and visited by China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012. In the past, space junk has fallen within sight of people, and there have even been reports of injuries as well. In 1991 the Soviet Union's 20-tonne Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth while still docked to another 20-tonne spacecraft called Cosmos 1686. They broke up over Argentina, scattering debris over the town of Capitan Bermudez.

NASA's 77-tonne Skylab space station came hurtling to Earth in an almost completely uncontrolled descent in 1979, with some large pieces landing outside Perth in Western Australia.