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Chinese spacecraft expected to uncontrollably crash back down to Earth

A 34-foot-long, 19,000-pound Chinese space station is expected to enter our atmosphere sometime this weekend, hurtling down and mostly burning up in an uncontrolled reentry. To make things even more dramatic, its exact destination is unknown.

Tiangong-1, launched in 2011 as the first Chinese space station, will arrive sometime around Sunday or Monday, but scientists say the odds are that humans will not be affected.

Most of the Tiangong spacecraft (which translates as “Heavenly Palace”) will burn up upon reentry, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Some debris might survive and make it to Earth’s surface, but he’s not concerned.

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“There have been 49 larger uncontrollable reentries in the history of the Space Age,” McDowell said. “So it’s not that big a deal in terms of reality.”

The spacecraft is expected to fall within the latitudes of about 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South, which is a huge swath of the Earth, he said.

Most of Massachusetts is inside that zone, at the northern edge of the band, McDowell said. “But having said that, there’s an awful lot of the rest of the Earth that’s inside that range, too.”

The Aerospace Corporation, a federally-funded, California-based organization that specializes in space station research, said scientists might get a better idea of where the space station will reenter and break apart only a few hours before it happens.

The timing is up in the air. “We’re looking at April 1 or 2, but it could shift a couple days because of space weather,” McDowell said.

The solar wind squeezes the Earth’s atmosphere, changing its density. That could affect the speed of the reentry and where any spacecraft debris lands, he said.

“This thing is traveling at 17,000 miles per hour,” he said. “That’s what satellites do. And so if you get the reentry time wrong by an hour, you’ve got the entry location wrong by 17,000 miles. So we probably won’t be able to be very helpful about a location until it’s reentered.”

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The China National Space Administration launched the spacecraft on a test flight on Sept. 30, 2011, to demonstrate a docking technology needed for a future space station, NASA said in a statement. It was unmanned when it was launched, but it was designed to be habitable for docking and various experiments. Astronauts later went aboard.

The Chinese retired it in 2013, McDowell said.

“They should have deorbited it over the Pacific safely, but they knew they wanted to launch its successor, Tiangong-2, and worried that rocket might fail. So they kept it as a backup just in case,” McDowell said.

Tiangong-2 went up just fine, he said, but in 2016, the Chinese space agency realized it could no longer control the first spacecraft.

“They made the bet that it would continue working safely until Tiangong-2 was up, and they lost that bet,” McDowell said.

The chance of Tiangong-1 causing injury and property damage is very low, but it could happen, he said.

Whatever happens, we’ll find out soon enough.

“The death spiral is beginning,” McDowell said, “but the death of the spacecraft, not of us.”


Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.