The operators of the Chinese space laboratory Tiangong-1 lost contact in 2016. Now it looks as if the spacecraft on Saturday or Sunday in the earth's atmosphere.
A spaceship the size of a small house on the verge of returning to Earth's atmosphere. We do not know exactly when and where we do not know. Parts of the spaceship could survive the fiery re-entry and make it to the ground – or maybe not. We will see that it happens when it is likely to reappear over a populated area.
As you can see, there are a lot of unknowns for something that will happen in a few days. Forecasters have a pretty good idea of what the weather will be like on April 1
The operators of the Chinese space laboratory Tiangong-1 already lost contact with her in 2016. However, they did not come straight out and said so. First, the Chinese space agency said it was disabled. Then amateur Sky Watchers noticed that the spaceship was out of control. China later admitted this, saying that they expected Tiangong-1 to return unchecked at the end of 2017. Now it looks as if the spaceship will enter the Earth's atmosphere on March 31st or April 1st.
That's not how it should go
"We have logs for every launch and every spaceship to make sure that we can mine it properly," said JD Harrington, a spokesman for NASA opposite the Washington Post. "There are times when these plans do not materialize, and that's something all space agencies have to deal with."
NASA does not track this spacecraft. (However, the military is in the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base.)
But NASA knows a few things about space debris and how to prevent satellites from falling out of the sky unchecked. The protocol is usually to have enough fuel on board to allow a controlled re-entry, said Harrington. When operators can control the spacecraft, they can pinpoint where and when they will enter the Earth's atmosphere.
In some cases, NASA will use fuel intended for re-entry to keep the scientific mission going. This was the case with the TRMM satellite, which was decommissioned in 2015 and fell back to earth. NASA and the broader research community decided it was worth the risk of using the extra fuel to expand the mission – monitoring tropical rainfall, which provided invaluable input into things like hurricane and monsoon research.
The difference between TRMM and Tiangong-1, however, is the size. TRMM was a relatively small research satellite weighing about 5,700 pounds when it returned to the atmosphere. It burned in small debris that threatened nothing on the ground. Tiangong-1 is nearly 19,000 pounds and as big as a small house.
Neither NASA nor the European Space Agency knows how the spaceship is built or what it is made of. Large titanium or steel components can withstand re-entry heat.
Space agencies have carried out so far controlled reentry of spacecraft of this size. Based on this, "one might suspect that Tiangong-1 will break during its atmospheric reentry and that some parts will survive the process and reach the surface of the earth," says the European Space Agency.
There are no laws governing the movement of space objects, says Holger Krag, head of the Space Debris Office of the European Space Agency. The only international law applicable to space objects is the Liability Convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1971. It says that if something falls from space and lands on the ground, the land from which the object originates is absolutely liable for any damage it causes.
"However, there is no similar thing for space property," Krag told the newspaper. Contact is much more likely there than an injury on the ground. This is not covered by an international space law.
(By the way, you can see all things in space in real time on the site stuffin.space .)
So far, an international space crisis has been due to good relations between all space nations, including the US Russia, Europe and China, to name but a few, avoided helping to keep 71 percent of the world covered in water.
"It's a 71 percent quota that it'll go into the drink," said Harrington: "We were lucky."
Tiangong-1 is far from the greatest in falling out of space unchecked, with the 39-tonne second stage of the Saturn V rocket launching Skylab made in 1975 Skylab itself made a notorious semi-final at 74 tons – spaceflight was not burned down as fast as NASA thought, rather than into the ocean southeast landed on Cape Town, South Africa, its parts were scattered in southwestern Australia.
One city has even fined NASA $ 400 for garbage. As far as we know, this fine was never paid.