Science

China's falling space station to hit Earth in days

China's falling space station to hit Earth in days

Within that zone, however, is where most of the Earth's population resides. Mr Aboutanios said if that happens during night time over a populated area it "will most certainly be visible, like a meteor or a shooting star". "The worst would be if some debris came down in a [populated] area".

The fact that Beijing also lies in Tiangong-1's "hit belt" has prompted some space aficionados to wish the "rogue" space lab, now running wild at an average height of 216.2 kilometers, heads straight back to the Chinese capital, rather than anywhere else, on its "homecoming trip".

Tiangong-1 was traveling at about 18,000 mph (29,000 km/h) in an orbit almost 168 miles (270 kilometers) above Earth when the radar images were acquired, according to Fraunhofer FHR. -How will it crash?- Deputy director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research, Dr Elias Aboutanios told BBC, the station's rate of descent "will continually get faster as the atmosphere that the station is ploughing through gets thicker".

On its southern band, the debris could fall on cities in Argentina and New Zealand, although the vast majority of the potential surface where debris could land are covered by ocean.

At around 19 tons each (17 metric tons), even the nose cones and prototype command modules of the early Apollo tests were bigger than Tiangong-1 when they de-orbited, uncontrolled, throughout the 1960s. It is assumed that China is unable to control or communicate with the station, though Chinese officials have not confirmed that.

Future spacecraft will also be "designed for demise" upon reentry. Planetary atmospheres are the ultimate satellite-killer, where even the thinnest wisps of gas exert aerodynamic friction, or drag, on a vehicle's direction of motion, causing it to slow and therefore lose altitude. Solar flares or the speed of the solar wind can affect the atmospheric density. This drag force depends in part upon Tiangong-1's position and whether the station is tumbling, which is hard to know for sure.

Experts say the chances are very unlikely that one or two individuals could be hit by debris from the space. "It spends 20 percent of its time between 40 and 43 deg N or S due just to the geometry of an inclined circle", says McDowell.

Wherever Tiangong-1 ends up, the chance of being hit by debris is extremely small - around one in 100,000 billion, according to Ansa. "Now, the caveat in that is that individuals would not be free to go and sue the Chinese government".

It's the debris you need to be looking out for.

Tiangong 1, which means Heavenly Palace in English, is likely to re-enter the Earth along one of two narrow stretches around 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitude.


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