Have you heard the news? The sky is falling. Well, the space lab is falling. China’s 8.5 ton Tiangong-1 space lab, launched in 2011 and out of control in Earth’s orbit since 2016 will likely fall from the sky sometime in late March or early April. Yes, that’s true.
I am truly surprised that this isn’t bigger news. Scientists have known that Tiangong-1 would fall since its mission was abandoned in 2016 when China admitted that they had lost control of the craft. It has not been self-correcting its orbit, which means that the drag from Earth’s atmosphere will eventually pull it back to Earth. The drag, however, is inconsistent, and apparently being in orbit that close to Earth is highly unpredictable when left to chance. So, it’s still up there despite initial predictions that it would come down in late 2017.
According to space.com, “The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, has issued a new update on the expected re-entry of China’s Tiangong-1 space lab.” That is a rough estimate. In fact, they specifically said in the announcement that, “At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible.” So, there’s that. The newest calculations put Tiangong-1 falling back to Earth sometime between March 30 and April 6.
Because Tiangong-1 is so massive (though not as big as space junk can get) and it’s in a slow-roll rather than a tumble, it is possible that the densest parts of the space lab could survive its fiery descent to Earth. It is most likely to fall in a straight line anywhere from 43 degrees north latitude and 43 degrees south latitude. That’s… a very large area.
The good news is that people are almost never hit by falling space debris, and most of the area in question is water, as is most of the Earth. But, you know, if you’re out and about on say… April 1st, and someone starts shouting about fire in the sky… it might not be April fools. Stay frosty.