China’s first experimental space station, the Tiangong-1,was launched in 2011 as a test bed for manned orbital operations and advanced docking and rendezvous procedures. The 34 foot long, nearly 20,000 pound space station performed well, according to reports in the Chinese media, until March of 2016, when it was announced that China had lost contact with, and control over, the platform.

Ever since then, it’s just been a waiting game to see when, and where the space station would come tumbling back to earth. According to telemetry data, it would appear the when could be very soon… but the where remains a bit of a mystery.

Based on an analysis provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Tiangong-1 space station is now expected to reenter the earth’s atmosphere sometime between March 29th and April 9th – though that window of time offers little clue as to what part of the globe the space station will actually reenter over. Because the space station is traveling in an uncontrolled descent at an estimated rate of 16,000 miles per hour, it will circle the globe completely multiple times within the projected window of reentry.

Tiangong-1 altitude decay forecast as of 6 March Credit: ESA

The one thing we are able to predict is that range of latitude lines the reentry will likely fall within. Following its current orbital trajectory, the space station should come down “anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS,” though the ESA reports that it’s more likely to be closer to the 43º lines on either side than between them.

That reentry flight path places a great deal of territory within the space station’s potential crosshairs, including parts of the United States, as well as the Iberian Peninsula, China, the Middle East, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

An interior view of China’s lost Tiangong-1 space station. (Courtesy of CMSA)

Chances are good that the nearly ten ton space station will actually break apart as it begins reentry, creating a spectacular light show, but destroying most, if not all, of the debris before it reaches the surface of the earth. Some questions remain about the likelihood that some pieces may be large enough to survive reentry and cause damage on the earth surface, but according to the ESA’s analysis of the situation, the average American citizen is around ten times more likely to win the Powerball lottery than they are to be struck by a piece of the Tiangong-1 as it plummets back to earth.

There has only ever been one confirmed report of a person being struck by a piece of debris that fell from space in history: Lottie Williams, who was hit by a piece of a defunct NASA satellite as she walked through a park in Oklahoma in 1997. Despite holding what may be that singular distinction, William’s recollection of the incident may assuage any fears people may have about the Chinese space station’s reentry.

“We were still walking through the park when I felt a tapping on my shoulder,” Williams told reporters. That tapping was actually debris that had survived reentry and made it all the way from orbit to her walking path. “The weight was comparable to an empty soda can,” Williams went on. “It looked like a piece of fabric except when you tap it, it sounded metallic.”


Image courtesy of CMSA