Science & Technology

Look Up! An Out-of-Control Space Station Is Crashing to Earth This Weekend

It's been a while since anything big hit the planet. As far as we remember, the most recent impact that did any serious damage was about 65 million years ago. Well, buckle up: it won't be an ecosystem-destroying calamity, but this weekend, the plummeting space station Tiangong-1 might end that streak.

Station Laggin'

Tiangong-1 isn't the first artificial satellite to come hurtling to the surface of the planet. What goes up must come down, and most decommissioned satellites and spacecraft head for Point Nemo, Earth's spacecraft graveyard. But that's not where this particular space station is going. In fact, we don't know exactly where it'll land. Hey, at least we have a decent idea of when.

It's going to crash on Sunday, April 1, give or take 1.5 days or so. (This is no April Fool's prank.) And when it does, it's going to put on a show. Scientists are predicting a shower of fireballs, and that will just be the beginning. The station is large enough that it's unlikely to disintegrate entirely on reentry, and chunks as large as 200 pounds (91 kilograms) will probably impact the surface. But it's good to keep some perspective: this isn't the first time an object has taken an uncontrolled path to the Earth's surface, and it's also not the biggest. According to Space.com, even the nose cones of the early Apollo tests were bigger than Tiangong-1, and they were entirely uncontrolled when they deorbited. As the European Space Agency assures us, the odds of being hit by a piece of debris from Tiangong-1 is 10 million times smaller than the chance of being struck by lightning in a year.

Interested in tracking the space station's descent? We don't blame you. Fortunately, Aerospace Corporation is doing the hard math to keep tabs on it. A lot of major cities can be found on its flight path, including New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, New Delhi, and Rio de Janeiro. The good news is that it probably won't hit a populated area — it has a better chance of crashing into one of our vast oceans instead. The best news? If it's close enough to you (but not too close), it could make for a once-in-a-lifetime show.

Heaven Over Earth

Tiangong-1's name in Mandarin translates as "Heavenly Palace 1," and it's been a part of the orbital landscape since 2011. It's actually China's first space station, and it was joined by its younger sibling Tiangong-2 in 2016. Incidentally, that's the same year that the Chinese government announced that it had lost communication with the older satellite. But although Tiangong-1 only spent five functional years in orbit, it was an eventful half-decade.

One of the primary purposes of the station was to prove that the Tiangong program was viable and to pave the way for the larger, longer-lived Tiangong-2, which should remain in orbit until 2022 when a third iteration takes its place. To that end, the first Chinese space station was an overwhelming success. It successfully docked with two manned missions and an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft. One silver lining is that you don't need to worry about the astronauts' safety since there's nobody onboard right now. Really, the only danger is here on Earth, but there's not much to do about it except cross our fingers and wait.

Tiangong Reentry

Written by Reuben Westmaas March 29, 2018

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