How to Watch the Chinese Space Lab Tiangong-1 Plummet to Earth
It won't be a bird or a plane: If you look up to the sky next week, you may see a Chinese spacecraft on one of its last cruises around Earth before it hurtles through our atmosphere and explodes in a fiery hail of debris.
The space lab, called Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace"), was launched by the Chinese space agency on September 29, 2011, Space.com reports. It was the agency's first module to test docking technology, which is essential for bringing astronauts and cargo into space. In its four-and-a-half-year mission, Tiangong-1 successfully docked with one unmanned and two manned spacecraft.
Two years ago, Chinese officials said Tiangong-1 had completed its mission. Relegated to space-junk status, the module began circling the Earth on its slow journey toward oblivion.
Chinese officials say Tiangong-1 is now orbiting Earth every 88 minutes at an altitude of 134 miles, and getting closer to our planet's atmosphere each day. It's expected to fall to Earth sometime between early morning on March 30 and early morning on April 2, with April 1 being the potential sweet spot for skywatchers. (Track its progress here.)
As it tumbles through space, the 34-foot-long craft will appear to flicker with different levels of brightness. But its final destination is anyone's guess. Taingong-1 is predicted to fall anywhere between 42.8° north latitude and 42.8° south latitude—a circumglobal band roughly between the latitudes of Boston, Massachusetts and Christchurch, New Zealand. That target includes about 80 percent of the contiguous United States as well as huge areas of China, Japan, Chile, Argentina, southern Europe, and Australia.
As Tiangong-1 plunges into Earth's atmosphere, it will ignite and break into large chunks before crumbling further. About 10 miles above Earth, the fiery bits—which could still weigh more than 200 pounds—will lose velocity and rain straight down.
As Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian in 2016, "Yes, there is a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone's car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone's roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage."
Be careful out there.