China’s First Space Station is Deorbiting, and It’s Okay.

| March 15, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

You may have read some news stories claiming the station would “crash into Earth” on a specific date or even a specific place.  These claims are based in hype not fact. While orbit calculations do center on April 3 as the date, all things being equal, the station will finally lose so much altitude that Earth’s gravity overtakes it and brings it down.  But all things are not equal.

 

Tiangong-1 deorbit window estimates (courtesy: esa)

Our atmosphere is incredibly variable, especially at the upper levels where Tingong-1 is orbiting.  Even if we had a map that described exactly how dense that exosphere is across the whole globe, outside factors such as solar wind are constantly changing it.  The best we can predict right now is a two week window.

Any predictions of where the station will come down are just wild guesses. It will orbit the Earth over 200 times in those 2 weeks, covering the 2/3 of the globe between 43 degrees North and South latitude.

Predictions of debris hitting anyone or anything are pretty fantastic too.  Nearly all the spacecraft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere.  If anything does make it to the ground, the chances of anything striking you are about a million times less than hitting the Powerball jackpot.

So rest easy.  Theres a sizable piece of space junk de-orbiting every week, this one just has our attention for some reason.  The European Space Agency has a blog where updates on the fate of the station are being published.

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Tony Rice is a Solar System Ambassador for NASA/JPL and the voice and brains behinds the weekly Astronomy Report on the WeatherBrains podcast. He grew up in Southern California with Space Shuttle landings and was hooked. He brings weather and space together to communicate the excitement of space exploration and promote a greater appreciation for Earth sciences.

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