Satellites occasionally burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. China's orbital module may be too large to entirely disintegrate when it crashes into the atmosphere in 2017. Scientists say some pieces of debris could reach Earth's surface. Photo by Paul Fleet/Shutterstock
BEIJING, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- Keep your head up next year. China's Tiangong-1 space station is expected to re-enter the atmosphere and come crashing back to Earth sometime during 2017.
Though much of the space station is likely to disintegrate as it burns up in the heat caused by the friction of re-entry, some debris could reach Earth.
Chinese space officials confirmed the module's return would happen in 2017, but did not say whether the re-entry would be controlled or natural.
Many believed the retired orbital module has been spinning out of control in the wake of a technical or mechanical malfunction.
If that's the case, there will be no way to predict exactly where debris might land.
"You really can't steer these things," Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian. "Even a couple of days before it re-enters we probably won't know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it's going to come down."
"Not knowing when it's going to come down translates as not knowing where its going to come down," McDowell added.
A sudden shift in atmospheric winds could alter a piece of debris' likely landing spot by hundreds or thousands of miles.
China announced the return of Tiangong-1 last week at a press conference mostly devoted to the launch of Tiangong-2, the replacement for China's now-defunct inaugural space station.
Tiangong-2 was successfully launched on September 15 and is now orbiting Earth. It will receive its first crew in October.
"Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling," Wu Ping, deputy director of China's Manned Space Engineering office, told China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
But McDowell says the engines on the Tiangong-1 are likely too dense to burn up completely on their trip through the atmosphere.
"There will be lumps of about 100kg or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you," he said. "Yes there's a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone's car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone's roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage."