Maltese scientists tracking China's space station expected to crash over Easter weekend

The Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace 1", China's first space lab, was launched into orbit in 2011 to carry out docking and orbit experiments as part of China's ambitious space programme, which aims to place a permanent station in orbit by 2023.

According to scientists, the older station's orbit has started to dramatically decay and is expected to fall out of orbit between March 30 and April 3, 2018. "But luckily, most of the Earth is made up of water and it is likely that the Tiangong-1 will end up in a safe unpopulated zone like the Pacific", Prof.

Once the satellite falls below 200 kilometres above earth, tracking radar in western Europe would pick it up before it reached Italy and allow authorities to sound the alarm, according to this graphic from ASI.

While space junk falls back to Earth every day, this 8.5-tonne station has garnered more interest for a few reasons.

Space lawyer Kim Ellis said it would mean the federal government could present a claim for damage to China should Tiangong-1 collide with and damage a satellite from Australia or damage people or property within Australia.

What makes this effect even more unpredictable is that Earth's atmosphere is very sensitive to solar activity, adds Ailor. There is a variety of variables that could impact the spaceport station influence.


Having a roughly 5-day window to watch means that the space station could really fall anywhere, but even as the window narrows, it is still going to be quite hard to know where Tiangong-1 is going to come down. Since the space age began in 1951, no one has been injured by a piece of space debris. In 1979, Time magazine wrote of the upcoming event: "Thus will be observed, after a series of miscalculations, the tenth anniversary of man's proudest achievement in space, the walk on the moon".

Although the odds are vanishingly small of a chunk of space station hitting you-The Aerospace Corporation estimates the odds of that happening are less than 1 in a trillion-should you find a piece of Tiangong-1 in your back yard, you shouldn't approach it, as it could contain toxic chemicals.

China reportedly lost control of 19,000-pound station almost two years ago, in June of 2016.

Two Chinese woman astronauts also paid visit to the space station, which was launched as unmanned, in 2012 and 2013. Ailor says the chances of Tiangong-1 causing any serious injury to anyone on the earth's surface are extremely small.

"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.

  • Tracy Klein