We’ve known about it for a while, but in a few weeks, we might finally see China’s abandoned Tiangong-1 space station crash to Earth.
The station is now rapidly decaying, falling about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) a week from its orbital height of around 280 kilometers (175 miles). That’s up from about 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) a week in October, Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian.
At the moment the best estimates suggest it will re-enter the atmosphere at some point between the end of March and mid-April. The website Satview.org has a predicted date of Wednesday, April 11, while the Aerospace Corporation suggests early April.
ESA, meanwhile, predicts a window from March 24 to April 19. They note this window is “highly variable”. The station will re-enter somewhere in its orbital path, which extends from 43 degrees north to 43 degrees south. This takes it over places such as China, Italy, Spain, Australia, the US, Brazil, and more.
Tiangong-1 is fairly large, measuring about 10.4 meters (34.1 feet) long and 3.4 meters (11 feet) across, while it weighs a good 8,500 kilograms (18,800 pounds). As a result, it’s possible pieces of the station will survive re-entry and make it to the surface of Earth. (Note, many other heavier objects have returned to Earth.)
Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely these will hit anyone. The station spends most of its time orbiting over water or uninhabited regions, so the chances of it causing any casualties or damage are pretty slim.
There’s still some cause for concern, though, not least because some reports suggest the station is out of control. China has claimed previously that the station – which was last visited by a crew in 2013 – was not out of control. But most other sources tend to disagree.
The Aerospace Corporation has noted that there “may be a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine on board the spacecraft”, so people should not touch or approach any debris if it does happen to make it to the ground. If you do spot any debris, you can let them know here.
Tiangong-1, which translates to “Heavenly Palace”, was China’s first experimental space station, launched in 2011 as a single module. They are planning to develop a fully-fledged space station in the coming years, while they also have plans to send astronauts to the Moon.
All eyes will be on its first space station for now, though. Although it pales in comparison to its US and Soviet counterparts, it will probably still give us a bit of a show. Whether that's over a populated area or not, we'll have to wait and see. We'll only have more accurate re-entry data about a week before the event, so stay tuned.