Within a few days, China’s unmanned space station, Tiangong-1, will finally make its fall to Earth. The 19,000-pound space station will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere with a light show in the sky, as parts of it will burn away and eventually land somewhere.
China’s first prototype space station will most likely crash somewhere in the ocean. The estimated day for its re-entry is as early as Thursday, March 29 or as late as April 4, with some suggesting it will be on April Fools’ Day. At over nine tons, Tiangong-1 will make an interesting spectacle to watch as pieces of it will burn brightly once it re-enters the atmosphere. However, it’s the atmosphere that makes predicting when it’ll fall back to Earth so tricky.
“You’d be surprised just how inaccurate and random it is because of the atmosphere. Have you ever skipped a stone on a lake?” Jesse Gossner, an orbital mechanics engineer who teaches at the United States Air Force’s Advanced Space Operations School, said to Business Insider. “It bounces a few times, then eventually goes into the water.”
The unmanned space station, nicknamed the “Heavenly Palace,” went into orbit on Sept. 29, 2011. Tiangong-1 was the first part of China’s Tiangong program, which would eventually lead to the country putting a larger space station in orbit in 2023. Over the years, China launched multiple spacecraft in order to dock with the station. It was officially retired by the Chinese on March 21, 2016, and slowly made its way back to Earth after the country lost control of the station.
The Aerospace Corporation estimated Tiangong-1 re-entry to be between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes, which puts it around Spain, France, and Portugal. Most of the station will burn away while traveling through the Earth’s atmosphere, with the rest falling into the ocean. There’s only a lottery jackpot’s chance of it hitting anyone.
Still, if a piece of the “Heavenly Palace” does land near you, the Aerospace Corporation advises not to touch or inhale any of the toxic vapors emanating from the burnt pieces.