Tiangong-1 space laboratory to crash to Earth between mid-March and mid-April, according to new ESA estimates
ESA’s Space Debris Office has issued a new updated forecast for the imminent atmospheric re-entry of China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory, which appears to have been floating in space out of control for almost two years.
The office, located at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, coordinates ESA’s research relating to space debris. As part of its activities, it also keeps a close eye on the upcoming re-entry of China’s Tiangong-1 space station, which is expected to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere soon, but there are fears that some of its components may strike the ground.
According to new calculations, Tiangong-1 should fall to Earth in about one and a half months, most likely between mid-March and mid-April. However, this estimates are always subject to change, due to an array of variables (for instance the variations of the atmosphere).
“The current estimated window is about March 19 to about April 14; this is highly variable,” the Space Debris Office informs.
The update issued on Jan. 29 confirmed that the spacecraft should re-enter somewhere between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitudes.
The Office noted that areas outside of these latitudes can be excluded. This large swath of Earth includes Northern parts of the U.S., as well as countries such as Spain, Italy, Turkey, China, North Korea or Japan in the Northern hemisphere. When it comes to the Southern hemisphere, most probably those locations which might be affected would be: Chile, Argentina, Southern Australia or New Zealand.
Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace” in Chinese) is China’s first space laboratory. With a mass of some 8.5 metric tons, it measures approximately 34 feet (10.4 meters) long and has a diameter of about 11 feet (3.4 meters). The laboratory was launched on Sept. 29, 2011. Nine months later, in June of 2012, three Chinese taikonauts docked their Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to the station for the first time. The module was visited again in June 2013 when the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft transported another trio of taikonauts.
Beijing lost control over Tiangong-1 on March 16, 2016. It is believed that the space station ceased functioning due to a dysfunctional battery charger. China finally confirmed in mid-September of 2016 that the spacecraft was heading for an imminent re-entry, but they still did not disclose whether the station’s descent was controlled or not.
More recently, China sent a note to the United Nations (UN) on Dec. 8, 2017, which informed the organization that the fall of the spacecraft is expected to take place some time between the first 10 days of February and the last 10 days of March of this year (2018). Beijing added that until Nov. 26, the laboratory had been orbiting at an average altitude of 184 miles (296 kilometers) and insisted that the Tiangong-1 station and the fuel it contains, will not harm those on the ground.
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