An Out-of-Control Chinese Space Station Is Scheduled to Crash to Earth Next Weekend (But Where Will It Land?)

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March 24, 2018 9:40 am Published by

Although a lot of attention has been directed of late to the efforts of super-successful entrepreneurs to launch their own, privately-funded space programs (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his Blue Origin program, Elon Musk is busy launching his Tesla Roadster into orbit around Mars with his SpaceX rockets, Richard Branson is looking to launch well-heeled tourists into space with his company Virgin Galactic, and so on.)

However, long before these multi-billionaires got into the space business, governments were into it big time. The U.S. and Russia have been launching satellites and spacecraft into space since the 1950s, and other countries have joined in the fun since then.

In 2011, China launched a 19,000-pound space station–Tiangong-1–atop a Long March 2F rocket, and into orbit around the Earth. A variety of missions were conducted over the next couple of years, and the space station was eventually put into sleep mode–where it was expected to remain for many years.

However, the space station’s orbit gradually decayed, and in 2016, China lost control of Tiangong-1.

That’s a problem, because 19,000 pounds of metal and other materials will soon be headed to the earth’s surface — and where it will land, no one knows. Actually, scientists are pretty sure where it won’t land. According to Holger Krag of the European Space Agency (ESA):

“Owing to the geometry of the station’s orbit, we can already exclude the possibility that any fragments will fall over any spot further north than 43ºN or further south than 43ºS.”

Translated into English, this puts countries such as Spain, Turkey, India, Italy, and parts of the U.S. at greatest risk of being hit by debris from the fallen spacecraft (some pieces as heavy as a couple hundred pounds are expected to survive reentry into the earth’s atmosphere).

The good news is that although the risk of being hit by wayward Chinese space station debris is very real, the probability is actually quite small that any one person will become a victim–according to experts, about one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.

So, depending on where you live, next weekend might bring a sky show like few of us have ever seen as Tiangong-1 spectacularly crashes to Earth. Here’s hoping it doesn’t land in your town.

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