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Where Will Debris from China's Falling Space Station Land? Here's the Latest Update



While it's still hard to predict exactly when and where the doomed Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will fall this weekend, the latest prediction from Aerospace Corp. says the debris will most likely descend into the Pacific Ocean Sunday (April 1).


An artist's illustration of China's Tiangong-1 space station as it breaks apart and burns up in Earth's atmosphere.
Credit: Aerospace Corporation

As of late Friday, Tiangong-1 was predicted to fall from space on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. EDT (1615 GMT), give or take 9 hours. Earlier in the day, when the space station's fall was forecast for 12 p.m. EDT on Sunday, an expert told Space.com that earlier prediction would have seen Tiangong-1 begin its re-entry over Malaysia, and rain debris downrange into the Pacific Ocean. Because the space station is moving in its orbit across the equator, toward the North Pole. 


While it's still hard to predict exactly when and where the doomed Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will fall this weekend, the latest prediction from Aerospace Corp. says the debris will most likely descend into the Pacific Ocean Sunday (April 1). As of late Friday, Tiangong-1 was predicted to fall from space on Sunday at 12:15 p.m. EDT (1615 GMT), give or take 9 hours.

Earlier in the day, when the space station's fall was forecast for 12 p.m. EDT on Sunday, an expert told Space.com that earlier prediction would have seen Tiangong-1 begin its re-entry over Malaysia, and rain debris downrange into the Pacific Ocean. Because the space station is moving in its orbit across the equator, toward the North Pole.

"It should be a show for anybody on a boat," Aerospace Corp.'s Ted Muelhaupt told Space.com. He runs a center for orbit and re-entry debris studies at the California nonprofit research organization, which is tracking the descent of Tiangong-1.

Real-time tracking information for Tiangong-1 is available here from Aerospace Corp.'s Center for Orbital and Debris Reentry Studies.

Muelhaupt said people around Malaysia can expect to see fireballs similar in magnitude to the spectacular planned breakup of ATV-1 "Jules Verne," a European cargo freighter that returned from the International Space Station in 2008. In 2015, ESA published a video from a chase plane showing the dramatic, fiery breakup of ATV-1 over the Pacific Ocean. ATV-1 was similar in mass to Tiangong-1, which is 9.4 tons (8.5 metric tons).

While the amount of space debris generated from Tiangong-1 is tough to predict, roughly 220 to 440 lbs. (100 to 200 kg) may survive the fall through the atmosphere, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Space.com sister site Live Science. That's less material than what was left behind after the 1979 breakup of the 100-ton (90.7 metric ton) Skylab, which unexpectedly threw debris into rural Australia during re-entry.


China's first space station Tiangong-1, shown here in an artist's illustration, is expected to fall to Earth around April 1, 2018. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

Prediction simulations

Although the Pacific Ocean is the most likely location for Tiangong-1's demise, Muelhaupt emphasized it's hard to say where the station will re-enter Earth's atmosphere. The station is constantly orbiting Earth at an inclination between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes, which include the United States and much of the civilized world.


"The probability along the ground track is still pretty flat for the entire length of the track," he explained. This means that although Malaysia is where the probability of re-entry peaks, it's only a low spike compared to all of the other predicted points of re-entry.


At this point, Aerospace Corp. is more comfortable saying where the station likely will not re-enter; the Amazon, for example, is a "pretty safe" location, Muelhaupt said. He compared the situation to trying to predict the odds of who will win a lottery. To create its Tiangong-1 re-entry prediction, Aerospace Corp. uses no less than eight prediction methods. It tries to find a consensus between the models for its published estimates.


"Each one [model] makes slightly different assumptions, with slightly different orbit propagators," Muelhaupt said. "Depending on how the model is written, you have to make guesses about different things. Each of them comes with a slightly different perspective. There is no one way to model these things, so we run a basket and look at where we think the consensus is."


For example, one of the models uses a Monte Carlo simulation — a computer simulation that shows a range of possible outcomes, and the probability of each outcome occurring. Another model emphasizes one particular outcome, or "truth," over all others, Muelhaupt explained. Some models assume breakup occurs at a slightly higher altitude than others, which also affects Tiangong-1's predicted fall.

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