This weekend, a derelict Chinese space station will plummet to Earth.
While the station — named Tiangong-1 — will mostly burn up in the atmosphere when it falls to the planet, some relatively small pieces of that spacecraft may make it all the way to Earth’s surface.
However, we don’t know where those bits of orbital junk might land. Chances are, though, that it won’t be on top of your head.
In all likelihood, the bits of space debris won’t fall in any populated areas — the chance of being hit by a piece of space debris are less than 1 in 300 trillion — but we still don’t know exactly when and where Tiangong-1 will come down.
At the moment, the best estimate is that the station will fall to Earth sometime between the morning of March 31 and the afternoon of April 1.
That said, some intrepid trackers and space agencies are keeping a close watch on Tiangong-1 — which translates to “Heavenly Palace” — as it makes its rapid descent, so expect that estimate to be refined in the coming days.
Here’s how to keep an eye on the falling station yourself:
A few helpful Twitter users are keeping close tabs on Tiangong-1’s re-entry.
Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell has been keeping members of the public and press updated with new data showing the path of the space station for the last few weeks, and he shows no signs of slowing down now.
Tiangong-1 now in 188 x 205 km orbit (sphere); 190 x 214 km (ellipsoid). Down 5.9 km in past 24 hours.
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 28, 2018
The Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques has also been releasing new radar images of Tiangong-1 tumbling in space, making for some interesting, if not slightly unsettling viewing.
World exlcusive higly topical radar image video of #Tiangong1 based on data recorded today! Altitude: 200,5 km perigee, Rotation speed has increased, now 2,2°/s -> 2:23 min per one turn #reentry #radar #Tiangong #spacedebris pic.twitter.com/BaszrMz4mH
— Fraunhofer FHR engl. (@Fraunhofer_FHRe) March 27, 2018
Marco Langbroek is also a good Twitter follow for detailed analysis about Tiangong-1 and its whereabouts.
The lines on this map are where #Tiangong1 can come down within the current +- 1-day uncertainty window.
Cities with populations > 1 million people are also marked on the map, and those on the lines could see a reentry over them. The risk to these cities is however *very small* pic.twitter.com/QFnoLx1dbV
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) March 28, 2018
The European Space Agency (ESA)
The ESA has been keeping very close track of Tiangong-1 with daily updates for the past few weeks.
The space agency’s FAQ about the falling spacecraft is also pretty helpful when it comes to all of your Tiangong-1 needs, and especially for calming your nerves after seeing those radar images.
For example, the ESA has even explained when exactly we’ll be able to predict where the space station will come down:
Only from one day before the actual reentry will it become possible to roughly predict which ground tracks, and hence which regions on Earth, might witness the reentry.
But even then, an impact location prediction on the order [of] kilometres is, for an uncontrolled reentry, beyond current technical capabilities due to complexities of modelling the atmosphere, the dynamics of the reentering object and limitations in observing the spacecraft.
China’s space agency
The Chinese National Space Agency has also been putting out updates regarding the fate of Tiangong-1.
In all likelihood, we’ll get some kind of official confirmation from the agency that Tiangong-1 has met its fiery end, so check its website regularly.
China launched the Tiangong-1 in 2011, and since then, crews of taikonauts — China’s astronauts — have visited and performed experiments while onboard.
The agency launched Tiangong-2 in 2016, in preparation for a large future space station that could make it to space sometime in the 2020s.
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