A Chinese space station is due to re-enter and crash to Earth out of control within days, it has been confirmed.
The Tiangong-1 space station, weighing over 8,000kg and almost ten metres in length, is expected to re-enter the atmosphere and break up at some time on Easter Sunday.
Currently, the European Space Agency is estimating that the ‘re-entry window’ for the spacecraft is between the night of March 31st to the late evening of April 1st (UTC).
China, who launched the satellite in 2011, announced last year that they had lost communication with the craft, meaning the space station will be returning to Earth uncontrolled after slowly de-orbiting over many months.
Due to the size of the spacecraft, it is expected that as much as 40% of Tiangong-1 will survive re-entry and impact the Earth. At present, a specific location for impact is unknown but debris could land anywhere between the latitudes of 43N and 43S. Areas to the extreme north and extreme south of this zone are most at risk, due to Tiangong-1’s orbit. This includes highly populated areas, including New York, Beijing, Barcelona and Tazmania.
The craft is carrying a highly corrosive material called hydrazine, which is used in rocket fuel but can cause seizures, dizziness and even induce comas even from short-term exposure.
Although it is extremely unlikely that debris will fall over land, let alone over a populated area, scientists have urged members of the public to be cautious. In a statement online, the Centre of Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) warned: “For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale any vapours it may emit.”
To date, no person has ever been harmed by falling space debris. However, a woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma was struck by a 6 inch long fragment of space junk in 1997 whilst strolling through a park. She was uninjured and is currently the only person to have ever been struck by falling space debris.
Some people may be able to see the re-entry overhead on Sunday, which will look similar to a meteor streaking across the sky. The biggest re-entry of a space craft was Russian space station Mir, which weighed 120,000kg and returned to Earth in March 2001.
Mir’s re-entry will be dwarfed by the planned re-entry of the International Space Station (ISS) within the next decade.
Anyone who spots the re-entry is encouraged to contact CORDS, reporting the location of the sighting, the time, a description of what was seen and any photo or video of the re-entry.