The European Space Agency has issued an updated forecast for the descent of Tiangong-1, China’s first space station. Previously forecast to fall to Earth in late 2017, the station is now expected to fall out of orbit between March 24 and April 19. ESA officials say this is a rough estimate.
China launched the station in late September 2011 as a prototype for a more permanent station to be built by 2020. It successfully docked with two other spacecraft by 2013, but was decommissioned in 2015. The original plan was for a controlled re-entry, but China lost contact with its hardware by March 2016 . That means its eventual descent will be uncontrolled, and only the broadest projections can be made about where it will come down.
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Re-entry could happen, according to ESA, anywhere between 43 degrees north latitude and 43 degrees south latitude. That broad swathe includes parts of the U.S., Spain, China, Australia and South America. The station weighed approximately 8.5 metric tonnes when launched, according to ESA — or a little over 9.3 US tons. Because it has burned much of the fuel it launched with, its current weight is likely much less.
According to ESA, that’s similar to the mass of the satellites that fall to earth on a regular basis. Those typically burn up entirely on re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. According to experts speaking to the Guardian, the greatest chance is that any surviving fragments of Tiangong-1 will fall into the ocean.
The only known instance of a person getting hit by falling space debris is also, frankly, comforting. In 1997, while watching the fiery descent of what may have been a Delta II rocket, Lottie Williams was struck by a bit of falling space-junk. She was entirely uninjured, later describing the strike as “a tapping on my shoulder,” and the debris as “comparable to an empty soda can.”