China's space lab set to crash to Earth on April Fool's Day

WASHINGTON • When Tiangong-1 rocketed into the sky in 2011, optimists hoped the space station would be a model for a permanent fixture among the stars, a space laboratory that was among humankind's first footsteps in the Cosmos.

So, when an out-of-control Tiangong-1 - "heavenly palace" in Chinese - comes plummeting to Earth in a superheated trail of plasma and space debris, it may literally be an April Fool's joke.

Scientists have known for more than a year that Tiangong-1 would eventually turn into a man-made meteorite after the station stopped responding to Chinese commands in 2016, according to Space.com

The lab was returning from whence it came, they were certain, but when and where it would crash was out of anyone's control.

In recent months, scientists got better numbers. They told Spain, Portugal, France and Greece not to worry too much, but that an 8,600kg flying laboratory might be disintegrating over their skies.

Or, in the words of fear-allaying scientists, Tiangong-1 was experiencing an "uncontrolled reentry". But semantics will do nothing to change the time of the increasingly likely disintegration date: April 1, or April Fool's Day, according to Business Insider.

Tiangong-1 is currently spinning around the atmosphere at a speed of about 28,160kmh, taking one trip around the planet every 90 minutes. Although the air is thin in the zone where Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins, it is enough to slow the craft.

Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian pieces weighing up to 100kg could make it to Earth's surface. According to latest estimates, the parts of the lab that survive its return will crash into the ocean.

According to the non-profit research firm Aerospace, parts of the burning space station "may be visible and will likely last up to a minute or more, depending on time of day, visibility, conditions and the observer's location".

Even in the warned countries, there is an infinitesimal chance falling debris will strike someone. "In the history of spaceflight, no known person has ever been harmed by reentering space debris," the Aerospace said in January.

"Only one person has ever been recorded as being hit by a piece of space debris, and, fortunately, she was not injured."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'China's space lab set to crash to Earth on April Fool's Day'. Print Edition | Subscribe