China space laboratory expected to fall at month's end

Lena Tucker
March 30, 2018

Factfile on the Chinese space station Tiangong-1, due to plunge into the Earth's atmosphere sometime between March 30 and April 2.

Those authorities must then return the debris to China, Space.com said.

"This thing is like a small plane crash", he said, adding that the trail of debris will scatter pieces several hundred kilometres apart.

Currently, Tiangong-1 is expected to fall to Earth somewhere between the latitudes of 42.7 degrees north and 42.7 degrees south, a range that spans the border of South Dakota and Nebraska in the north and Tasmania in the south.

In recent months, scientists have had a better approximation of where the station may land. Aerospace offers a similar prediction: Sunday, give or take a couple of days. In addition, the Earth's atmosphere shrinks and expands throughout the day in response to the Sun's heating, which results in changes in air resistance. Still, it is impossible to determine where the station, which is now circling the Earth 16 times a day, will come down.

Although the satellite's final trajectory will remain a mystery until the final hours of descent, scientists are preparing for the worst outcome.

Back in 2011, China launched its first space lab called the Tiangong 1.

Typically, for something that large, 10 to 40 per cent of the mass will make it all the way to the surface without burning up.

This map by the European Space Agency shows the area in which China's Tiangong-1 space station could fall (shown in green) around April 1, 2018. But the sky has been falling all along, you just didn't realize it. But pinpointing where that will happen exactly is hard.

The ESA has been keeping very close track of Tiangong-1 with daily updates for the past few weeks.

The dynamics of the falling spacecraft can also affect the timing.

"In any case, physics is in Europe's favor", Lemmens, who is in charge of monitoring space debris for the ESA, said to the broadcaster. During its two-year lifespan, two manned and one unmanned mission successfully docked with the station, with one mission including China's first two female astronauts.

Stuff of this size drops out of the sky every year or so.

At over 10m in length and weighing more than 8 tonnes, it is larger than most of the man-made objects that routinely re-enter Earth's atmosphere, reports the BBC. The spacecraft ended up in the Pacific Ocean. At that point, it be much easier to determine where debris (if any) will fall.

The Heavenly Palace, also known as Tiangong-1, is the first space station built and launched by China. And never in the recorded human history of space flight has anyone ever been struck and killed by space debris, so there's that. That compares with a one-in-1.4 million chance of a person in the U.S. being struck by lightning. In 1997, Williams was minding her own business in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, park when a piece of disintegrated rocket hit her on the shoulder.

Other reports by AllAboutTopnews

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