[WATCH] Falling Chinese space station's re-entry expected on Easter Sunday

The new re-entry time window forecast by the European Space Agency for the uncontrolled Chinese space station is now Easter Sunday and this is no April Fool’s joke

The Chinese space lab, Tiangong-1, is about the size of a bus, and it's currently falling to earth. Credit: The Aerospace Corporation
The Chinese space lab, Tiangong-1, is about the size of a bus, and it's currently falling to earth. Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

The Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is expected to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere sometime next Sunday, although scientists still cannot provide an accurate forecast.

The latest re-entry forecast released on Friday by the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, ESOC, in Germany, gives a time window that runs from the night of 31 March to the late evening of 1 April. However, this remains highly variable.

Tiangong-1’s re-entry is of interest because it is an uncontrolled re-entry after Chinese scientists lost contact with the craft. The 8,000kg space station has been in orbit for six years and was decommissioned in 2016. It is now abandoned and out of control.

Although the craft is largely expected to disintegrate upon re-entering the atmosphere, some parts may still crash down to earth and scientists are unable to say where they will fall.

Re-entry will take place anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS. Malta falls within the upper reaches of this vast band (shown in green on the map) that straddles the globe.

One of the main reasons why it is so difficult to make an accurate re-entry prediction is solar activity.

According to the ESA, over the last 24 hours a high-speed stream of particles from the sun, which was expected to reach earth and influence the planet’s geomagnetic field, had no effect.

Calmer space weather around earth and its atmosphere is now expected in the coming days, which means that the density of the upper atmosphere, through which Tiangong-1 is moving, did not increase as predicted. Higher density would have contributed to an earlier re-entry.

“This implies that the new, and still uncertain, re-entry window has shifted to later in the day on 1 April,” the ESA said.

A team of Maltese scientists has joined international experts tracking the craft’s re-entry.

Speaking earlier this week, the director of the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy in Malta, Kristian Zarb Adami, said the friction caused by the earth’s atmosphere on its re-entry will mean that the satellite will get destroyed.

“But there is a good chance that some parts will survive re-entry and fall towards the earth. But luckily, most of the earth is made up of water and it is likely that the Tiangong-1 will end up in a safe unpopulated zone like the Pacific,” Zarb Adami said.

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