China’s out of control Tiangong-1 spacecraft will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at some point on Monday, the country’s space agency said in a statement.
Tiangong-1, known as “Heavenly Palace”, was formally expected to crashland on Sunday, but now may not arrive until Monday morning.
The delay, which offers Easter celebrators a temporary reprieve, was announced by the European Space Agency [ESA}, which is monitoring the station’s movements.
Yet the timings remain “highly variable” and it is unclear where and in what state the abandoned craft will eventually hit.
The space station, placed into orbit in 2011, was due for a controlled re-entry but stopped working in March 2016. Without its engines it is unable to change course.
How China lost control of it’s space station
It is said to be orbiting the Earth 16 times a day and tumbling over every three minutes in a downward spiral towards our planet.
Yet experts said the chance of injury from the craft to those on the ground is minimal, given it is likely to break up during re-entry.
Nearly 6,000 uncontrolled re-entries of large objects have occurred over the past 60 years without harming anyone, according to the ESA.
No one knows for sure where debris may land though many experts believe much of the station will burn up during re-entry. Beijing said on Friday that it is unlikely any large pieces will reach the ground.
South Korea’s National Space Situational Awareness Organization said on its website Sunday that the station is expected to re-enter the atmosphere sometime between 5:12 a.m. and 1:12 p.m. Seoul time (2012 GMT to 0412 GMT) on Monday.
The 10.4-metre-long (34.1-foot) Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 to carry out docking and orbit experiments as part of China’s ambitious space program, which aims to place a permanent station in orbit by 2023.
The spacelab was originally planned to be decommissioned in 2013 but its mission was repeatedly extended.
China had said its re-entry would occur in late 2017 but that process was delayed, leading some experts to suggest the space laboratory is out of control.
The China Manned Space Engineering Office moved to play down concerns on its WeChat social media account, saying there is “no need for people to worry”.
A spokesman said that such falling spacecraft do “not crash into the Earth fiercely like in sci-fi movies, but turn into a splendid (meteor shower) and move across the beautiful starry sky as they race towards the Earth”.
Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said the country would step up efforts to coordinate with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs as the craft approaches.
During re-entry, atmospheric drag will rip away solar arrays, antennas and other external components at an altitude of around 100 kilometres (60 miles), according to the Chinese space office.