Sometiem in the next few months, likely in March 2018, China’s first space station Tiangong-1 is going to fall down to Earth. As it plummets from orbit in a fiery streak, most of it will be destroyed. Usually, the owners of spacecraft try to control their reentry and steer them towards lonely, watery graves. But China has lost contact with Tiangong-1, and its entry will not be controlled.
Spacecraft re-enter Earth’s atmosphere with regularity; the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies keeps a running list. Most of these spacecraft are rocket parts or satellites, and most of them end up in the South Pacific’s spacecraft cemetery—a safely unpopulated place for the world’s space-going countries to dump their space clunkers.