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The Chinese space lab is about to crash and burn — and that’s OK with China

Rumors started this summer that China had lost control of its first space lab, which would hurtle to Earth in a fiery ball.

The rumors started this summer: China had lost control of its first space lab, which would hurtle to Earth in a fiery ball of destruction.

Chinese officials fed that speculation last week when they confirmed that the lab would return sometime next year, with “most parts” burning up during the fall. Several British newspapers flashed headlines about “out of control” equipment on a collision course with Earth.

That’s one scenario.

However, falling space junk has yet to injure a person on land, and analysts doubt there’s great risk of anyone getting crushed by a piece of the Chinese space lab.

And the lab’s impending demise doesn’t mean that China’s space program is in trouble. The country just launched a second, more sophisticated space research lab, a tribute to an expanding program with ambitions to reach Mars. The uproar does underscore the political aspects of exploration and China’s guarded efforts as it pushes toward a permanent presence in space.

“I’m sure this is horribly uncomfortable for the Chinese because it’s a first and because culturally, they’re inherently opaque,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, who has written extensively on space policy and is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.

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China launched Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace 1,” in 2011. State-run television broadcast the send-off of the country’s first orbiting laboratory, a mini station that could hold three astronauts for 20 days. Officials labeled it an initial step in developing a long-term space station by the early 2020s. They intended Tiangong-1 to last two years.

The space agency announced its impending return to Earth a day before China sent off its second space lab, known as Tiangong-2, with Bluetooth connections and a treadmill for the two astronauts who will live in it for a month.

The labs weigh more than 9 tons, as much as four midsize SUVs.

“Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling,” Wu Ping, deputy director of the Manned Space Engineering Office, said last week, according to the official New China News Agency.

Wu did not mention what control China had over the lab, but said that its fall was unlikely to “affect aviation activities or cause damage to the ground,” and that officials would monitor the situation.

“If necessary, China will release a forecast of its falling,” she said.

This wouldn’t be the first time spacecraft has taken an unpredictable course out of the sky — or triggered concern. Debris from the first U.S. space station, Skylab, rained over Australia in 1979 after people bought Skylab insurance and showed up at crash parties with hard hats. No one was injured.

“Everything in orbit by definition is in free fall,” said Daniel Brown, an astronomy lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. “That doesn’t mean they are out of control and we are doomed.”

But occasions like this emphasize the need for an international body to help govern space activity, he said.

“It might be one of the turning stones where we will see how the Chinese learn from this … and how they are going to run their space program.”

China’s space exploration has soared since the early 1990s, when the country embarked on a dedicated campaign to develop a space program. In 2003, China launched its first astronaut. A decade later, it landed a rover on the moon; the Jade Rabbit turned into a social media phenomenon.

Now China is launching large-scale satellites to explore arcane aspects of quantum physics, preparing an X-ray telescope that can scout out black holes and designing rockets that lift enough to rival those in Russia or the U.S. They’re named Long March after the historic trek by China’s Red Army in the 1930s that began Mao Tse-tung’s ascent to power. China plans to use these rockets to explore Mars.

Scientists are working on harnessing solar power and mining asteroids. China’s permanent space station could open just as the International Space Station — to which it does not belong — winds down.

“China has ambitions to be the world leader in spaceflight,” said Morris Jones, an Australian space analyst. “It is making steady progress toward that goal.”

Even as it gains momentum, China’s space program lacks a clear organizational structure. Its technology still lags behind those of other countries with long-established space programs, namely the United States and Russia. Its lack of transparency hinders global cooperation.

“The human spaceflight program in China is back where the U.S. was in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said Gregory Kulacki, the Los Angeles-based senior analyst and China project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization. “The technology is newer and different, but it’s the stuff we did a long time ago.”

These days, China and the U.S. have very little interaction when it comes to space. Congress in 2011 banned NASA from working with China because of national security concerns.

Rumors like the crash of Tiangong-1 “tend to circulate because we don’t have a normal relationship with China’s space community,” Kulacki said. “It’s totally unnecessary.”

China’s space budget approached $11 billion in 2013, according to estimates by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the second-largest in the world, after the $40-billion U.S. space budget.

Beijing’s funds act as a continual stream of political and financial support at a time when budgets elsewhere are shrinking.

“We still have a lot of things undone in space, compared to the U.S.,” said Zong Qiugang, an astrophysicist at Peking University’s Institute of Space Physics and Applied Technology, who has worked with the U.S. and Chinese space agencies.

“But the gap between China and the U.S. is getting smaller.”

Meyers is a special correspondent. Yingzhi Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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