Chinese space lab to crash to earth in fiery show


The European Space Agency (ESA) Saturday pushed back the time that Tiangong-1 is re-expected to enter the earth’s atmosphere, saying it would likely take place between Sunday afternoon UTC and early Monday morning.

The agency had originally forecasted re-entry between midday Saturday UTC and Sunday. The change in the defunct Chinese space lab’s predicted return to earth was due to changes in the conditions of solar activity, the ESA said in a blog post.

A high-speed stream of sun particles failed to materialize as expected, leading to calmer space weather and no increase in the density of the upper atmosphere, which would have pulled the 8.5-metric-ton (9.4-ton) Tiangong-1 down towards earth at a faster rate.

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ESA said the spacecraft could land anywhere between 43 degrees north latitude and 43 degrees south latitude. However, the agency emphasized the uncertainty around predicted re-entry information, stating: “At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible.”

Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” was launched into orbit in September 2011. A controlled return guided by ground engineers to earth became impossible after the lab ceased functioning in March 2016.

Read more: China launches second space laboratory, Tiangong-2

Re-entry forecast: fiery with a chance of debris showers

The spacecraft will mostly burn up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere due to the heat generated by its passage, ESA said.

However, it added that some craft parts could survive the atmospheric re-entry and reach the Earth’s surface. The pieces could land over an area “that is thousands of kilometers in length and tens of kilometers wide,” but the agency highlighted that “a large part of the Earth is covered by water or is uninhabited.”

China Tiangong 1 above earth (picture-alliance/dpa/CMSE/Europa Press)

Tiangong-1 was some 280 kilometers (174 miles) above earth in January 2018

“Hence the personal probability of being hit by a piece of debris from the Tiangong-1 is actually 10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning,” ESA said.

Chinese authorities said that the spacecraft’s fiery disintegration will provide a “splendid” show similar to a meteor shower, AFP reported.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-frequency Physics and Radar Technology (FHR), located just south of the western German city of Bonn, is assisting ESA with radar technology and will be following Tiangong-1’s fiery return to earth. The institute will be regularly checking to see whether the descending lab remains intact or whether pieces have broken off.

The FHR said that Germany faces no risk from Tiangong-1’s flaming fall to earth.

Read more: Germany’s new astronaut Matthias Maurer eyes 2020 mission and Chinese space ties