Tech: China's bus-size space station could crash to Earth in about five hours — or sooner

Tiangong-1, China's first modular space station, is falling to Earth. Pieces of the 9.4-ton object may even hit the ground. Chin...

A scale model of China's Tiangong-1 space station.

Tiangong-1, China's first modular space station, is falling to Earth. Pieces of the 9.4-ton object may even hit the ground.

  • China lost control of its first space station, Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace" in March of 2016.
  • The spacecraft is expected to burn up in Earth's atmosphere on the evening of April 1.
  • As of Sunday afternoon ET, this means Tiangong-1 is about 5 hours away from crashing, give or take two hours.
  • Pieces of the bus-size vessel should be durable enough to reach our planet's surface.
  • Any surviving pieces of Tiangong-1 will most likely land in the ocean.

Update: The Chinese space station Tiangong-1 has crashed in the South Pacific, see here for more.

China's first space station, called Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace," will soon break up over Earth into a fiery rain of space — and the predictions for when it's coming down are getting more exact.

The Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit spaceflight research company, has released its newest prediction about the derelict spacecraft's doom: Tiangong-1 should reenter Earth's atmosphere on April 1 at 8:18 p.m. ET, give or take two hours. This is similar to the latest prediction by the European Space Agency (ESA), which expects the space station fall sometime around midnight (ET) as April 1 becomes April 2, give or take four hours.

This means the dead spacecraft could come crashing down in about 5 hours, providing fireworks high in the sky at the start of April.

When it does, extreme heat and pressure caused by plowing through the air at more than 15,000 mph will destroy the roughly 9.4-ton vessel.

Not everything may vanish, though.

There's a good chance that gear and hardware left onboard could survive intact all the way to the ground, according to Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer who specializes in atmospheric reentry. That durability is thanks to Tiangong-1's onion-like layers of protective material.

"The thing about a space station is that it's typically got things on the inside," Ailor, who works for The Aerospace Corp., previously told Business Insider. "So basically, the heating will just strip these various layers off.

"If you've got enough layers, a lot of the energy is gone before a particular object falls out, it doesn't get hot, and it lands on the ground."

For example, he said, after NASA's Columbia space shuttle broke up over the US in 2003, investigators recovered a working flight computer. (The artifact that ultimately helped explain how the deadly incident happened.)

Tiangong-1 'fulfilled its historic mission'

Launched in September 2011, Tiangong-1 is a two-room space station that two crews of taikonauts, or Chinese astronauts, visited.

It's 34 feet long and has a volume of 15 cubic meters, or about 1/60th of the volume of the International Space Station, which is about the length of a football field.

Though China superseded Tiangong-1 in 2016 with Tiangong-2, space experts hailed the first space station as a major achievement for the nation, since it helped pioneer a permanent Chinese presence in orbit.

"It conducted six successive rendezvous and dockings with spacecraft Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9, and Shenzhou-10 and completed all assigned missions, making important contributions to China's manned space exploration activities," said a memo that China submitted in May 2017 to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

In the memo, China said it lost contact with the spacecraft on March 16, 2016, after it "fully fulfilled its historic mission."

Predicting Tiangong-1's crash to Earth

By May 2017, Tiangong-1 was coasting about 218 miles above Earth and dropping by about 525 feet a day, the memo said. Its altitude has since plummeted to an altitude of about 90 miles, according to the Aerospace Corporation's latest data.

"For any vehicle like this, the thing that brings them down is atmospheric drag," Ailor said. "Why there's a lot of uncertainty in the predictions is that it depends on what the sun's doing, to a large measure."

The sun can unleash solar storms and solar flares — bursts of X-rays and ultraviolet light — that heat Earth's outer atmosphere, causing the air to expand and rise. That forces low-flying objects like Tiangong-1 to plow through denser gases.

"This puts just a little bit of a higher force on these objects that causes them to come down," Ailor said.

An analysis of the combined effects of solar activity and Tiangong-1's orbital speed, direction, and altitude, as well as other factors, helps the Aerospace Corporation provide its latest by-the-minute deorbit estimates.

The European Space Agency (ESA) reported on Friday that calm space weather shifted the window for the expected landing later in the day on April 1, though things are still highly variable.

Where China's space station might crash

Tiangong-1 is likely to crash over the ocean, as water covers about 71% of Earth's surface.

But there's a decent chance some pieces may strike land as it breaks up over a long and thin oval footprint.

"The whole footprint length for something like this could be 1,000 miles or so," Ailor said, with heavier pieces at the front and lighter debris toward the back.

If anyone is lucky enough to witness Tiangong-1's atmospheric breakup from an airplane, it may look similar to the destruction of the European Space Agency's 14-ton Automated Transfer Vehicle in 2015.

The ATV was an expendable spacecraft that used to resupply the ISS. Once astronauts and cosmonauts unloaded its supplies, it was filled with garbage and sent careening back to Earth.

When asked for comment on Tiangong-1's threat to ongoing NASA missions, the space agency told Business Insider it "actually doesn't track any debris."

But Ailor said pieces of China's space station are "really unlikely" to hit anyone or anything on Earth. Re-entry will occur between latitudes of 43ºN and 43ºS, shown in the map below.

According to The Aerospace Corp.'s website, the probability of being hit "is about 1 million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot."

"It's not impossible, but since the beginning of the space age ... a woman who was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma is the only one we're aware of who's been touched by a piece of space debris," he said.

Should a hunk of titanium, a computer, or another piece smash through a roof or windshield, however, international space law covers compensation for victims.

"It's China's responsibility if someone gets hurt or property gets damaged by this," NASA's representative said.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on January 2, 2018.

More on the crash of Tiangong-1:

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