A Chinese space station is expected to enter the Earth's atmosphere this weekend.
The big question is where.
Tiangong-1, known as “Heavenly Palace,” is making a quick descent, with an expected crash landing by April 2. Where exactly is this rogue piece of space exploration going to end up? It turns out that a big portion of the United States, including parts of New England, are part of the possible crash zone — that is, in the slim chance the object survives reentry.
Experts note that the public should not be worried because it is extremely unlikely that the out-of-control, school-sized space station will survive re-entering the atmosphere, much less crash land into a populated area. Tiangong-1 has been orbiting uncontrolled since at least June 2016.
Though the object is expected to reenter the atmosphere around April 2, the exact day or time of the event is still unknown. According to The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research organization based in El Segundo, California, that has been modeling the 18,000-pound station's reentry path, it is “very difficult to predict the exact timing of a space object’s reentry.”
The European Space Agency says that Tiangong-1’s potential reentry area is between 42.8 degrees North and 42.8 degrees South latitude. The impact zones span the entirety of Africa, most of South America, Central America, the majority of the United States, southern Europe, Australia and large parts of Asia below eastern Russia. It includes all of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and parts of southern New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
Depending on the time and place, as well as the cloud visibility, “the reentry may appear as multiple bright streaks moving across the sky in the same direction,” Aerospace Corporation says, adding that because of the large size of the object, many pieces reentering together is expected, with some surviving and landing on the Earth’s surface.
A reentry analysis conducted by Aerospace, reports that “the risk that an individual will be hit and injured by the reentry of a generic space object is estimated to be less than one in one trillion. To put this into context, the risk that an individual in the U.S. will be struck by lightning is about one in 1.4 million.”
There is only one known case where space debris struck a person. Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was struck in the shoulder by a small piece of space debris while walking in 1996. She was not injured.
The Aerospace Corporation says that it is not at all uncommon for space debris to fall to Earth.
Tiangong-1 is the first space station built and launched by China. It was launched aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket on Sept. 30, 2011.