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Out-of-control Chinese space station will crash back to Earth around March 31st, researchers say

Published Mar 21st, 2018 10:21AM EDT
space station crash

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Earlier this month, scientists attempting to forecast the eventual crash of China’s Tiangong-1 space station guessed that it would likely fall on or around the end of March. Updated observations have narrowed the window down a bit, but the big day is looking more and more like it’ll be March 31st. The spacecraft, which has been out of control for months after China lost contact with it and couldn’t wake it back up, will be incinerated in Earth’s atmosphere, but there’s still a chance that some debris could come crashing down to Earth.

Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace,” is China’s first space station, and an unceremonious dive towards Earth wasn’t what the country had in mind for it. Tech issues resulted in a loss of control, and now the 8-ton craft is at the mercy of Earth’s gravity which is pulling it closer and closer by the day.

Forecasting when and where it’ll make its reentry is extremely difficult due to a huge number of factors. The spacecraft’s decaying orbit can be affected by a number of things, including the recent mild geomagnetic storm that apparently sped up its descent. The current best guess as to when it will reach the tipping point and be dragged back into the atmosphere is March 31st, give or take a few days.

At this point it’s still unclear where the spacecraft will reenter Earth’s atmosphere, and that makes the tricky job of predicting a potential impact site virtually impossible. The space station is big and heavy, and China says that it’s likely that a significant amount of debris will survive the friction inferno of reentry. When that material falls to Earth, it could pose a danger to anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

According to the bright minds tracking the space station’s demise, you’d be about a million times more likely to win the lottery than to be struck by a piece of falling debris. Still, China warns that some of the material on board the space station, such as toxic chemicals used in its rocket fuel, could be hazardous if you happened upon a smoldering chunk of the space station. So, if you see a falling chunk of twisted, smoking metal, it’s probably a good idea to just walk away.

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