China’s space station Tiangong-1 is set to plunge to Earth – but where?

An out-of-control Chinese space station, speeding at 28,000 km per hour (17,000 mph), is expected to come crashing out of orbit this Easter weekend.

These two radar images of Tiangong-1 were obtained in March by the Tracking and Imaging Radar system operated by Germany’s Fraunhofer FHR research institute at Wachtberg, near Bonn. Image credit: ESA

The spacecraft Tiangong-1, which is 12 meters (40ft) long, the size of a double-decker bus, could plunge into the atmosphere anywhere along its orbit. And although much of the structure will burn up on re-entry, some parts are expected to survive to hit the Earth.

The 8-ton space station brings it from as a latitude of around 42.8 degrees north to the same latitude south, meaning it could crash anywhere between the northern USA and Australia.

The orbiting outpost, whose name means Heavenly Palace, was visited by two crews of Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, since its launch in September 2011.

It was planned to steer the space station into a controlled re-entry over the Indian Ocean where it would not be a threat But mission controllers lost command of the spacecraft’s engines, and the drag from the rarefied outer atmosphere has gradually been causing it to sink lower. In January it was about 280 km (174 miles) in altitude but had dropped to about 200 km (126 miles) by late March.

An artist’s impression of the Tiangong-1 space station in orbit. Image credit: CMSE/China Manned Space Engineering Office

The European Space Agency has been tracking the space station and said in a blog post: “We may not exclude that a (small) fraction of the Tiangong-1 mass may reach ground, in some fragments, distributed over a large footprint area.

“It is very difficult to estimate how much, precisely, without more knowledge of the spacecraft’s design and construction.”

ESA say that they will not have an idea of just where Tiangong-1 will come down until a few hours beforehand.

But their blog adds: “The personal probability of being hit by a piece of debris from the Tiangong-1 is actually 10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning.” You can read ESA’s daily updates here.

The largest ever uncontrolled re-entry was of NASA’s 75-ton Skylab space station which scattered fragments over western Australia in July 1979. NASA was “fined” by one town where debris landed.

ESA has been hosting a campaign to follow the reentry of Tiangong-1, conducted by the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), which is made up of 13 space agencies/organisations.

Remarkably detailed radar images were obtained in March by the Tracking and Imaging Radar system operated by Germany’s Fraunhofer FHR research institute at Wachtberg, near Bonn.

You can follow the track of Tiangong-1 for yourself as it makes its final orbits by visiting the Satview website.

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