Should we brace ourselves for Tiangong-1 Chinese Space Station ?

As Tiangong-1's orbit slowly decays. as the earth’s gravity over comes the stations its velocity and it will crash land, but before it does it will be a spectacular display as it disintegrates in the sky. Experts predict, while most of the station will burn up in the atmosphere, some of its hardier components will likely survive the inferno and crash into Earth. 

Should we brace ourselves for Tiangong-1? As the Chinese space station is returning from space will it come crashing into Earth? Pieces weighing up to 100kg could make it to the surface when speculated out of control 8.5 ton laboratory breaks apart in our atmosphere. Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace” was launched in 2011 and was a great achievement for China forming a part of an ambitious scientific push to turn China into a space superpower. Tiangong was used for both unmanned and manned missions but in 2016 after months of speculations, Chinese officials confirmed they had lost control of the space station and that it would crash in 2017/2018, as we saw nothing in 2017 we are due its arrival to Earth. Chinese space agency notified the UN that it expects it to crash land between October 2017 and April 2018. With a steady orbital decay in recent weeks it has started falling faster below 300km in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher. 

Although most of the space station craft is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, some parts may still weigh up to 100kg when they crash into Earth although the chance that anyone will be harmed is considered remote it is being closely watched by China and the United Nations “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” with a carefully monitored descent as predicting where it is going to land would be impossible to determine even within the days ahead of its landing. The potential crash zone is southern Europe and further south to South Africa. The European Space Agency is issuing regular updates about the space stations decent to Earth, and the current window of estimated surface contact is 28th to the 31st of March, a definite narrowing from the previously reported window of the 17th of March to the 21st of April and re-entry will take place anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS (e.g. Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, etc.). However the ESA added that it will never be able to give a definitive time location prediction but areas outside the danger zone can be excluded. The craft is expected to burn up entering the atmosphere and the remaining wreckage will fall without endangering the surface, into a designated area of the sea. 

There is one small concern with the station, it is carrying a highly toxic chemical called hydrazine, used as rocket fuel but exposure to humans is believed to cause symptoms such as seizures and nausea with long term contact causing cancer. It is worth remembering that in the history of spaceflight, no known person has ever been harmed by space debris re-entering to Earth.

ESA officials estimate that the odds of being stuck by a piece of Tiangong-1 are less than 1 in 300 trillion, and the station will mostly fall in the ocean. Astronomers captured this incredible view of the derelict spacecraft as it shot through space. The Virtual Telescope Project in Italy, together with the Tenagra Observatory in Arizona, used a robotically controlled telescope to provide live views of the space station during a webcast on March 28th 2018. In this view from the webcast, Tiangong-1 is gleaming from the suns reflection off the space stations surface with faint star trails in the background. 

Capturing the out-of-control space station "was an extremely difficult task" due to the craft's speed, Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project said in a statement. Tiangong-1 was moving at about 18 degrees per minute, the station's speed was approximately 17,400 mph (28,000 km/h). The telescopes available at the Virtual Telescope Project and Tenagra Observatory were equipped for the challenge. The Paramount ME robotic mount installed on these telescopes is "the best hardware of this kind available in the world," states the Virtual Telescope Project's website. At the time the image was captured, Tiangong-1 was orbiting at an altitude of about 137 miles (220 kilometres). That's around half as high as the International Space Station, which flies at an average altitude of 248 miles (400 km) above the Earth.


by Blake Hopley - Space Times UK


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