China’s Prototype Space Station is About to Fall From the Sky

Sometime this weekend, Tiangong-1, China’s first manned space station will plummet back to earth. Originally launched in 2011, the nearly nine-ton prototype space station was only intended to operate for two years. But, China extended it’s life a little further before finally losing control of the satellite in 2016. The Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese, has been on a slow collision course with earth ever since.

Oceanic pole of inaccessibility at 48° 52′ 36″S 123° 23′ 36″W
Oceanic pole of inaccessibility at 48° 52′ 36″S 123° 23′ 36″W

It’s highly unlikely that Tiangdong-1 will crash into an inhabited area, but not impossible. Normally, controllers guide obsolete satellites to a place in the South Pacific Ocean called the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility, which lies about midway between Australia and Chile, south of the Pitcairn Islands. It is the point on the earth furthest away from civilization where falling satellites are least likely to hit anything. Some 260 satellites have met their fate here over the years.

However, because China’s space agency no longer has any control over Toangong-1, no one knows for sure exactly where the “Heavenly Palace” will fall back to earth. Still, the odds are remote that it will come down anywhere it could do harm and most of it will burn up in the earth’s atmosphere anyway. The satellite, or whatever will be left of it, is small while the earth is comparatively large and mostly covered by water. So, the odds are long that it will end up coming down in an inhabited area.

What are the chances it falls on your head? It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. The European Space Agency, which has a unit devoted to tracking space junk, estimates that it is ten million times more likely that you’ll be struck by lightning.

But, there’s a chance you might see it in the sky. Once it falls below 100 miles, Tiangong-1 will speed up and begin to glow as it encounters thicker layers of the atmosphere. If you’re in the right place, it will look like a meteorite streaking through the sky.

In the 1970s, all 77 tons of the U.S.’s much larger SkyLab crashed harmlessly into Western Australia. Like SkyLab, Tiangong-1 will most likely fall harmlessly into an unpopulated area. We’ll have a better idea of exactly where it will make impact about 24 hours out. But, until then, we’ll be left wondering.

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