When Skylab fell back to Earth decades ago, NASA was tracking the collapsing satellite and even able to steer and aim it for a crash site hundreds of miles from land.
China’s first space station, not so much.
The 19,000-pound Tiangong-1 station is probably gonna crash … somewhere on Earth … sometime this weekend.
China has lost all control of the station, experts have concluded, based on the fact that its initial vague prediction that the behemoth station will fall some time in late 2017 has already come and gone.
The European Space Agency, according to a CBS News report, predicts a final crash between Saturday and Monday morning — a very large window in these matters so close to the event.
“The date, time and geographic footprint of the re-entry can only be predicted with large uncertainties. Even shortly before reentry, only a very large time and geographical window can be estimated,” said Holger Krag, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office.
So whatever happens is going to happen without any cushioning and little warning.
“Even a couple of days before it re-enters, we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian in 2016.
According to the ESA, the projected re-entry area runs 43 degrees latitude north of the Equator to 43 degrees latitude south.
That’s not only a big area, it also covers most of the world’s most populated lands, although space officials continue to insist the chance of injury from falling space debris is low. Much of the 19,000-pound station will burn up in the atmosphere and, like Skylab, become a fireworks show for the Earthlings below.
But the uncertainty remains huge.
The ESA area covers the Americas between the northern continental U.S. and central Argentina, all of Africa and Australia, southern Europe, the Middle East, and all of Asia south of Mongolia.
“Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down,” Mr. McDowell said.