China’s Tiangong-1 space station will crash into Earth next month – but experts aren’t sure where it will hit
China lost contact with its Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1, space station in 2016, and the 8.5-tonne outpost has been drifting aimlessly since. In recent weeks, it has become apparent that the failed module will inevitably re-enter the atmosphere, crashing back to terra firma sometime around the beginning of April.
Tiangong-1 is currently at an altitude of 150 miles and is the focus of multiple space agencies looking to predict when and where it will crash. The problem with the latter, however, is that it’s proving difficult to pin down a specific location.
What is known is that the space station’s orbit spans between 43° north to 43° south. That puts the UK out of range, but it encompasses large sections of Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Africa, North and South America, as well as China itself.
Travelling at speeds of around 18,000mph, and without guidance to direct it to oceans or uninhabited areas, there’s a strong element of chance in where Tiangong-1 will hurtle back to Earth. Scientists could offer a better prediction if they knew exactly what was on the station, but the only people privy to that information seems to be Chinese authorities.
“To make any sensible statement about what will survive, we’d need to know what’s inside,” said Stijn Lemmens, a space debris analyst at the ESA’s Darmstadt centre told the Guardian. “But the only ones who know what’s onboard Tiangong-1, or even what it’s made of, are the Chinese space agency.”
When the module does plummet to Earth, it is expected to break up and spread fragments of debris over areas spanning thousands of miles. Most of this will burn up in re-entry, and – given the proportion of the Earth that is ocean – is most likely to land in water. Still, there’s a degree of uncertainty, coupled with concerns that the spacecraft could have titanium fuel tanks holding toxic hydrazine, which could be dangerous if it crashed into an urban area.
Western space agencies are taking the module’s unpredictable re-entry as an opportunity to test radar and laser tracking equipment. It’s thought that more information will be gleaned in the coming weeks, although we may not know for sure where Tiangong-1 will hit until its final hours.