Tiangong 1, the rogue Chinese space station which was launched in September 2011, is to fall to Earth sometime around April 3, although this could vary by about a week either way.
Chinese officials announced in 2016 that they had lost contact with the station and therefore had no more control over it. Since that time, the station’s orbit has been decaying steadily. It’s still not known exactly when and where it will come down. The best estimates until recently have been somewhere between 43º North and 43º South latitude, although lately some speculations are that it may reenter the atmosphere on a trajectory that will cause debris to fall over lower Michigan. This is not an accurate prediction, though, because there are various forces that act on a spacecraft entering the atmosphere, such as the density of the atmosphere at the time, the composition and orientation of the craft, and numerous other factors.
If a satellite or other spacecraft is tumbling, it is far more likely to burn up upon reentry, but image analyses and ground viewing of the space station indicate it is in a slow roll, which means pieces of the station could survive intact before hitting the ground. However, the Aerospace Corporation has stated that it’s “highly unlikely that any debris will strike any person or significantly damage any property.”
The Aerospace Corporation also cautioned that there may be hydrazine aboard the station, which is highly toxic and corrosive. They caution that if any debris is found, it shouldn’t be touched or any vapors from it inhaled.
The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) will be monitoring Tiangong 1’s reentry. Their aim is to verify, analyze, and improve prediction accuracy for all members, including NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the space agencies of Japan, India, Russia, China, and South Korea.
Although it’s not yet known for certain, more accurate predictions of the time and location should be available closer to the final event.
TC Williamson is a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Texas. He has an avid interest in news, politics, history, and science. You can follow him @TCWilliamson on Twitter, Minds, and Gab