China launched its prototype space station called Tiangong-1 back in September 2011. The name Tiangong-1 translates to mean Heavenly Palace 1, but 5 years on from that launch and there’s nothing heavenly about the state of China’s space palace anymore. In fact, they’ve had to admit control of the space station has been lost.
Rather than stating “we’ve lots control,” Chinese officials instead have said that Tiangong-1 will fall back to Earth at some point in late 2017. Some point is the best estimate we will get as China no longer has control of the station so it will come down when it’s good and ready.
The one concern about this situation is how much of Tiangong-1 won’t burn up in Earth’s atmosphere during its uncontrolled descent. Any parts that don’t will fall to Earth, and may fall on populated areas. The chances of that happening are small due to the sheer size of Earth and how much of our planet is covered in water, but the Chinese simply don’t know when re-entry will happen, so there’s no guarantees.
The last crew to visit Tiangong-1 departed in June 2013 and the station has been in sleep mode ever since while China continued to collect data about the health of its components. That data collection ended in March of this year, with the plan to perform a controlled descent and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. But clearly something went wrong.
Meanwhile, China’s Tiangong-2 (Heavenly Palace 2) space station launched last week on September 15 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in the Gobi desert. Several manned missions are planned to visit the new station.