China’s out-of-service Tiangong 1 space station is now expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere sometime this weekend, and based on the most likely path of reentry, there’s a small chance it could rain down debris on Charlotte. The danger to people and property on the ground is minimal, since most of the bus-size, 8.5-ton vehicle is expected to burn up on re-entry, only the heaviest components, such as the engines and generators will end up crashing into earth.
The Chinese government first lost contact with the space station in March of 2016, and the last orbital adjustment they made was in December 2015.
Since then, it’s been slowly losing orbit and descending toward the earth’s surface. The orbital decay has been accelerating over the past few weeks and it’s now forecasted to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere sometime this weekend.
The European Space Agency predicts re-entry between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon — an estimate they call “highly variable,” due to how the ever-changing shape of the upper atmosphere affects the speed of objects falling into it.
Estimate paths of reentry now follow narrow bands that surround the earth between 43° North and 43° South latitudes.
The following Cartesian map by the Aerospace Corporation shows Tiangong’s current path and the predicted paths of reentry. The green line is the most likely path of reentry.
We enhanced the map on America’s SouthEast and overlayed it onto a corresponding Google Maps view, showing the most pronounced green line (most likely path of reentry) crossing both Atlanta and Charlotte;
Although the green line is the most likely path of reentry, it still encircles the entire globe, so at this point, it’s more likely the station will end up crashing into a body of water than any habited land area.
Still, it won’t hurt to be watching the skies this weekend – if the space station does re-enter anywhere near your vantage point, the massive ball of fire will be hard to miss. The space station reentry has become such a big deal around the country that people have even started selling “I survived the Tiangong-1 crash” t-shirts.