Sunday 16 December 2018

Space not final frontier as China station falls to Earth over Easter

China’s Tiangong-1 space lab to fall to Earth this weekend. Photo: ESA
China’s Tiangong-1 space lab to fall to Earth this weekend. Photo: ESA

Neil Connor and Nick Allen

A rogue, eight-ton Chinese space station is likely to fall to Earth over the Easter weekend, leaving experts scrambling to guess where the debris might land.

Tiangong-1, or 'The Heavenly Palace', is expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere somewhere between the 43rd north and south parallels, roughly between the latitudes of London in Britain and Wellington in New Zealand, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).

Scientists will not have a more precise forecast until the day before re-entry, and even then predictions could be off by thousands of miles.

China's first space station, launched in 2011, was supposed to have a "controlled re-entry", splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. In March 2016, however, the space station ceased functioning. It has since been orbiting in an ever-descending spiral towards Earth.

Yesterday it was at an altitude of 210km and was expected to re-enter the atmosphere between March 31 and April 2. China claimed it would burn up on re-entry, but space experts said for an object of that size between 10pc and 40pc of it could survive the fireball, with pieces reaching land or the ocean.

"It can be surmised that Tiangong-1 will break up during its atmospheric re-entry, and that some parts will survive the process and reach the surface of Earth," an ESA spokesman said.

The ESA added that the probability of a person being hit by a piece of debris from Tiangong-1 was 10 million times smaller than the chance of being hit by lightning because a large part of the planet is covered by water or is uninhabited.

China has released little information apart from its altitude, and without more details of its design European scientists and Nasa have had little information on which to base their predictions for the landing area.

Stijn Lemmens, an ESA space debris expert based in Germany, said: "Over the past 60 years of space flight, we are nearing the mark of 6,000 uncontrolled re-entries of large objects, mostly satellites and upper rocket stages. Only one event actually produced a fragment which hit a person, and it did not result in injury." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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