Space Lab Is Likely Only Weeks From Falling

New estimates suggest re-entry in late March or early April
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 7, 2018 7:06 AM CST
The Shenzhou-10 manned spacecraft is seen while conducting docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module in this 2013 photo.   (AP Photo/Xinhua)

(Newser) – China's "Heavenly Palace" will tumble to Earth within weeks, experts say. Two new estimates suggest the Tiangong-1 space lab will fall from space in an uncontrolled re-entry in late March or early April. According to a "highly variable" estimate put forth Tuesday, the European Space Agency predicts the 9-ton craft will fall between March 29 and April 9. That's on course with the prediction of nonprofit Aerospace, which foresees a re-entry in the first week of April, give or take a week. The space lab, which can be tracked here, dropped below 185 miles in altitude in October. It's currently hovering around 160 miles in altitude, but dropping a little less than 4 miles per week, up from about 1 mile per week in October, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell tells the Guardian.

The craft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere between the 43º north and 43º south lines of latitude, which include parts of the US, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and China in the north and parts of Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand in the south, per Popular Mechanics. Should some debris make it to land, it could cover a wide area, but it's highly unlikely to cause injuries. Even in the aforementioned areas, the chance of being hit by debris is "about one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot," Aerospace notes, adding that "in the history of spaceflight no known person has ever been harmed by reentering space debris." The nonprofit points out another concern, however: the space lab might be carrying a highly toxic and corrosive fuel.

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