The European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office has announced that it expects China‘s out-of-control Tiangong-1 space station to re-enter the Earth‘s atmosphere sometime between March 19 and April 14.
The space agency also predicts that the plummeting spacecraft will re-enter the atmosphere between the 43rd north and south parallels (e.g. Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, etc.). Areas outside of these latitudes can be excluded.
However, the office warns that this estimate is “highly variable” and subject to change due to a variety of factors, such as fluctuations in the Earth’s atmosphere; the forecast will be updated approximately every week in January and February. At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible.
Tiangong-1 is China’s first manned space lab and was launched in 2011. But in March 2016, Beijing lost control over it, likely due to a faulty battery charger. China has previously told the United Nations that it is expected to re-enter the atmosphere between the first 10 days of February and the first 10 days of March.
The space lab measures around 10.4 meters long, 3.4 meters wide, and weighs approximately 8.5 metric tons.
Satellites and spacecraft fall to Earth all the time, usually burning up completely during re-entry. However, Tiangong-1’s size means there is a small possibility that some large chunks may make it to the surface.
Normally, mission operators have a plan to safely bring spacecraft of this size down into the oceans via a controlled re-entry.