Science

China's falling space lab will make its fiery reentry in less than 24 hours

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The world has been tracking China’s defunct space lab Tiangong-1 as it made its way to Earth for several years. It could finally make its fiery entrance during the next few hours, according to the latest estimates.

The Tiangong-1 is estimated to show up between the night of April 1 and the early morning of April 2 (GMT), according to the latest forecast from the European Space Agency (ESA), which tracks space debris. The Aerospace Corporation, a space-research group funded by the US federal government, calculates the space lab will make its appearance shortly after midnight GMT—give or take two and a half hours.

Tiangong-1, the first Chinese space lab, was launched from the Gobi desert to great fanfare in 2011. A relatively small space lab (about 1/10th the size of the International Space Station), Tiangong-1 was meant as a sort of prototype for a more permanent station China hopes to have operational by 2022. Tiangong-1 stopped working in 2016, and Chinese authorities later predicted the unmanned module would make its way down to Earth on its own by the end of 2017, and re-enter the atmosphere uncontrolled.

During a controlled reentry, ground controllers can use the engines of the space object to guide it towards an unpopulated area, such as an ocean. The path of the Tiangong-1, however, will be shaped by the drag in the Earth’s outer atmosphere, which is not constant. This makes it particularly hard to predict exactly when and where it will land. The current ESA estimates put its reentry within a broad band that covers big swaths of virtually every continent. (Here’s how to track Tiangong-1’s return online.) [

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It’s very unlikely that any piece of the 8.5-metric-ton module will come into contact with people. Most of it will burn up as it enters the atmosphere. A few lucky people might catch the spectacle with their naked eye; it will look like slower-than-normal shooting stars splitting into other shooting stars, Holger Krag, head of ESA’s space debris office in Darmstadt, told The Guardian.

Scientists are warning passersby to stay away from any pieces that do make it to the ground, however, as they could be contaminated with a highly corrosive and toxic substance.

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