How to Watch the Chinese Space Lab Tiangong-1 Plummet to Earth

STR/Getty Images
STR/Getty Images

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.

[h/t Space.com]

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

The Leonid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend—Here's the Best Way to Watch It

mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images
mdesigner125/iStock via Getty Images

We're nearing the end of 2019, but there are still a few astronomical events to catch before the year is s out. This Sunday—November 17—the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak. Here's everything you need to know before viewing the spectacle.

What is the Leonid meteor shower?

Like all meteor showers, the Leonids are caused by meteoroids from outer space burning up on their descent toward Earth. These particular shooting stars come from the rocky tail of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Each November, debris from the comet pummels the Earth's atmosphere, causing meteors to light up the sky at rates that can exceed 1000 per hour.

The Leonids won't reach that frequency this year. According to EarthSky, the meteors would peak at a rate of around 10 to 15 per hour in a dark, moonless sky. But because the moon will be bright this weekend, sky-gazers will likely see less of them, with only the brightest shooting stars shining through.

How to See the Leonids

For your best chance of spotting the Leonids, look up the night of Sunday, November 17 and early in the morning of Monday, November 18. The shower reaches its peak after midnight. The moon will be in its waning gibbous phase at that time, so even with clear skies, viewing conditions won't be ideal. But there are ways to increase your chances of seeing as many meteors as possible. Try finding a large object to stand under—such as a tree or building—that will block your view of the moon. If you don't see anything right away, be patient: The more time you give your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the more likely you are to spot a shooting star.

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