Chinese space station could pose threat as it crashes back down to Earth

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Astrophysicists predict that Tiangong-1, China's first space station, will fall from its orbit in the coming months. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Wang Yongzhuo)

China's National Space Administration might have a problem on its hands.

Five years after it was launched into space, the agency's first space station is expected to come crashing back down to Earth in the next few months.

Tiangong-1 has already outlived expectations; it was expected to be deorbited in 2013 in anticipation of the launch of two later space station prototypes. Last year, China announced that it had lost control of the space station and that it would likely come crashing back down to Earth between October 2017 and April 2018.

China said the space station was orbiting approximately 216 miles above Earth a year ago (for comparison, the International Space Station orbits at an altitude of approximately 254 miles). Each day, it is dropping about 525 feet closer to Earth.

It's completely normal for orbiting objects -- manmade or natural -- to fall back down to Earth, but most of them are smaller rocks or other pieces of debris that burn up as they re-enter the atmosphere. In fact, there's so much junk in orbit around Earth that the United States Strategic Command actually maintains a database of the larger pieces that could threaten satellites and space stations.

Some scientists have raised concerns, though, that parts of Tiangong-1 could be too dense to burn up in the atmosphere and could fall back to Earth at least partially intact, creating a danger for those in the path.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian earlier this week that portions of the space station could still weigh hundreds of pounds as they crash back down to Earth, creating a "remote" possibility that someone or something on Earth could be struck by a flaming ball of space junk.

China's space agency said last year that "most of the structural components of Tiangong-1 will be destroyed through burning," although it did concede that there is a "very low" possibility that the space station could endanger aviation and ground activities.

In the meantime, China has pledged to closely monitor the space station as it slowly creeps back down toward Earth and share re-entry information with the international community as it becomes available.

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