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Debris from ‘Tiangong-1’, China’s now defunct space station, could come crashing into Earth as early as Friday, Chinese authorities who are monitoring the situation say. Most of the station, however, will likely burn up in the atmosphere before it hits Earth, but it’s possible that some debris could survive and strike Earth’s surface. The most recent estimate for re-entry falls between March 30 and April 2.
The 8.5-ton space station was built as part of China‘s space program and was put into orbit in 2011. In 2016, China confirmed that it had lost control with Tiangong-1. Now, as the station is no longer controlled, it’s harder to predict the time and place of impact.
According to the European Space Agency, re-entry “will take place anywhere between 43°N and 43°S,” a large area north and south of the equator. The agency expects to have more precise predictions closer to the weekend. The station’s descent “will continually get faster as the atmosphere that the station is ploughing through gets thicker,” Dr. Elias Aboutanios, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, told the BBC. “The station will eventually start to heat up as it gets close to 100km [from Earth],” he says.
Aboutanios added that it is difficult to know exactly what pieces will survive re-entry because China has not disclosed the makeup of the station, and that if it does burn up at night over a populated area, it will be visible like a meteor or shooting star.
Experts agree that even if parts of the station do survive to Earth’s surface, the chances of them hitting a person are extremely slim.
“Our experience is that for such large objects, typically between 20% and 40% of the original mass will survive re-entry and then could be found on the ground, theoretically,” Holger Krag, the head of ESA’s space debris office, told reporters at a recent briefing.
“However, to be injured by one of these fragments is extremely unlikely. My estimate is that the probability of being injured by one of these fragments is similar to the probability of being hit by lightning twice in the same year.”
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