Sometime between Saturday and Monday, as most Canadians are enjoying their Easter long weekend, a Chinese space station is expected to dive into the upper atmosphere, break apart and come tumbling down to Earth.
Scientists aren’t quite sure where the bits and pieces of the unmanned Tiangong-1 space lab will land, but they’ve narrowed it down to … well, pretty much anywhere between 43° north and 43° south.
So if you happen to be in the crash zone, what are the chances you’ll see the re-entry? Or even that you’ll get hit by a piece of debris?
Here’s everything you need to know about Tiangong-1 and its final flameout.
Why is this thing crashing?
The space station, whose name means “Celestial Palace,” launched into orbit in September 2011. The Chinese, who are working on constructing their own crewed, modular space station, wanted to use the prototype space lab as a stepping stone. It worked out pretty well.
During its first few years in orbit, Tiangong-1 was visited three times. The first docking, in November 2011, was with an unmanned craft. After that, two manned crafts (Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10) docked in June 2012 and June 2013.
Those manned missions included China’s first female astronauts. The astronauts spent their time doing some maintenance work on Tiangong-1 and even delivered a remote video lecture from orbit to students across China.
The station officially ended its active service two years ago, and eventually, the Chinese data link with the craft was cut. China’s space agency conceded that it had lost control of Tiangong 1, leaving it to gradually decay in its orbit due to atmospheric drag.
“The current estimated re-entry window runs from the morning of 31 March to the early morning of 2 April (in UTC time),” according to the European Space Agency’s latest prediction.
The agency added that the prediction “is highly variable.”
Will it hit me?
In one piece, Tiangong 1 is about the size of an average school bus, just over 10 metres long and 3.3 metres wide. It weighed 8.5 tonnes on Earth.
Once it hits the atmosphere, however, the craft is expected to break into smaller pieces, starting with the solar panels disintegrating.
The whole thing is expected to be consumed in flames as it hurdles downward, and at that point, pieces that experts have predicted could weigh as much as 100 kilograms will break away and start plummeting straight down.
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The fact that 71 per cent of the planet’s surface is covered by oceans means that the remaining debris is more likely to hit the water than a landmass. And the chances that one of those pieces will hit someone on the ground are less than one in one trillion, according to U.S. non-profit Aerospace Corporation.
Will I see it?
Probably not, especially here in Canada. We are not in the re-entry zone, so the chances of watching Tiangong-1 flare across the heavens are slim to none.
But before it falls, the craft is predicted to make several regular passes over much of the United States and southern Canada around sunrise from March 26 to April 3.
The crash itself, once it begins, is expected to last less than 30 minutes. People on the ground may spot glowing streams of light that streak across the sky, especially if the re-entry happens at night.
If the debris does hit a landmass, the public is being warned not to approach it or touch it, as it could include toxic materials. The pieces will remain the property of China, regardless of where they fall.