It’s a bird…it’s a plane…no, it’s a failing spacecraft.
On Saturday, Tiangong-1 — China’s first prototype space station — was captured streaking across the night sky on its way to its impending doom. Sometime in the next few weeks, the 19,000-lb orbiting space lab is expected to come hurtling back into Earth’s atmosphere, nearly two years after the Chinese government announced it had lost connection with it.
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Astronomer Gianluca Masi spotted the abandoned satellite traveling in front of the Orion, Tarus, and Auriga constellations from a vantage point in Rome, Italy. Masi, who is affiliated with The Virtual Telescope Project, said this will be one of the last four times to catch a glimpse of the craft before its decaying orbit plummets it back down to Earth.
“The space station is moving along a decaying orbit. It should re-enter our atmosphere in the next few weeks, so we have just a few more chances to observe it,” Masi says in a blog post. “Some surviving debris could fall to Earth’s surface, with large uncertainties as for the exact location.”
Tiangong, which translates to “heavenly palace,” will be Earthly rubble soon enough. Back in January, a not-for-profit group called the Aerospace Corporation reported that it would make an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere, but no one is entirely sure where it will land exactly.
The Aerospace Corporation estimates the space lab will reenter Earth’s atmosphere “somewhere between 43 degree North and 43 degree South latitudes.” While the European Space Agency (ESA) approximates it will begin its violent descent sometime between March 29 and April 9. The space agency also noted that Spain, France, Portugal, and Greece are all potential crash sites, but they couldn’t get any more precise than that.
While the ambiguity of this crash landing might seem scary, there’s no need to freak out. One estimate for the odds of getting hit by space debris is about 70 trillion to one. This means you have a better chance at getting struck by lightning.
So just chill and breakout your telescopes to see if you can witness Tiangong-1 make its final orbital lap.