Tiangong-1 space lab, precursor of China's own space station, has been decommissioned. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing has hit back at badmouthing by Western media about the fate of its Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) program, after the New York Post, among others, said the biggest threat from above in 2018 might be man-made, referring to the threat of debris from the “out of control” Chinese space station when it falls to Earth.

The 8.5-ton space lab, the pet project of Beijing’s ambitious manned space program that has been in the near-Earth orbit since 2011, once received three Chinese taikonauts, a feat much trumpeted by Communist Party mouthpieces.

However, it now has been running way longer than its designed life span of two years while drifting into a decaying orbit, which will eventually result in it “plummeting to Earth,” as noted in Western papers, stressing that researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly when and where this event will likely happen.

It’s feared that the Earth’s atmosphere won’t completely burn up Tiangong-1 during the re-entry process, and the remaining debris will scatter around a vast area between 43 degrees north latitude and 43 degrees south in the South Pacific Ocean, and the 1-in-10,000 chance that the debris lands on a populated area cannot be ruled out.

The New York Post is also concerned about the fuel that Tiangong-1 uses: “potentially hazardous materials, including hydrazine, a highly toxic and corrosive substance used in rocket fuel, might survive re-entry,” the paper notes.

A China Central Television news grab about the Tiangong-1 docking with the Shenzhou-9 spacescraft in 2012.

Beijing mouthpiece Global Times on Wednesday dismissed such worries, citing an aerospace expert with the China National Space Administration as saying that the Chinese authorities had never said Tiangong-1 was “running rogue” in space, refuting an earlier report by The Guardian.

He said that previously China had conducted controlled crashes of retired satellites and rockets, including when the lunar-orbiting Chang’e-1 crashed on to the surface of the moon in March 2009 after accomplishing its mission, and in another successful de-orbit, unburned fragments of the space shuttle Tianzhou-1 dropped into the designed area in the South Pacific Ocean in April last year and nothing occurred outside the script.

Global Times has also quoted Malaysian authorities as saying that the chance of Tiangong-1 hitting their territory would be as slim as 0.09%.

The latest weekly orbit data of Tiangong-1 dispatched by the office of the Chinese manned space program show that in the week ended December 24, the station orbited at an average height of 286.5 kilometers, slightly lower than 298.1km a week earlier.

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