Earlier this month on 1 April, China’s first school bus-sized space station, Tiangong-1 burned up in the earth’s atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean at 8:16 p.m. EDT (0016 GMT on 2 April).
The Chinese space station Tiangong-1 penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere in April this year in an uncontrolled descent. It is predicted that most of its components will be consumed in the reentry, but some small debris could hit the Earth, scattered over an area of thousands of square kilometers. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), which monitors the device from the Office of Space Debris at its headquarters in Darmstadt (Germany), the probability that a person was to suffer the impact of a fragment is 10 million times less than its annual impact probability by lightning.
The ship orbits the Earth in a band that ranges between 42.8 degrees north and 42.8 degrees south latitude and has a greater chance of penetrating the atmosphere at the ends of this strip. That means it is more likely to fall in northern Spain, central Italy, northern China, the Middle East, the northern states of the United States, New Zealand, Tasmania, or parts of Argentina and Chile. It will be impossible to fine-tune the forecast until a few hours before the reentry, say sources from several space agencies. In its latest prediction, made on March 15, the US company, Aerospace Corporation, announces the fall for April 4, with a margin of error of two weeks. ESA estimated on March 6 a reentry between March 29 and April 9.
Tiangong-1, which means “celestial palace-1”, operates since 2011 and is the first Chinese space station, the third built by a single country after the United States and Russia. The main module of the satellite measures 10.4 meters long and has two solar panels of 7×3 meters each. The “space laboratory” is a prototype and had a projected life of only two years, but it continued operating for two more years until in 2016, the Chinese government admitted that it had lost control of the propellers.
Thirteen space agencies – including ESA, NASA, and CNSA of China – contribute to the monitoring of the fall of Tiangong-1 orbit and the dissemination of information on its re-entry as members of the International Committee for the Coordination of Space Debris (IADC) for its acronym. IADC members will take advantage of this event to carry out their annual reentry testing campaign, in which each agency contributes its monitoring data in order to calibrate the monitoring protocols and improve the predictions of future reentries.