ESA: China's Out of Control Space Station Tiangong-1 Could Crash to Earth Somewhere in U.S. or Europe

Long March II-F rocket loaded with China's unmanned space module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the launchpad in 2011. Petar Kudjundzic/Reuters

We have known for some time that the out-of-control space station Tiangong-1 is going to crash to Earth pretty soon. But the date and location of said crash has been something of a moving target as the weeks roll by. Now, researchers are zeroing in on where it will likely land and becoming more certain about the timing, too.

Researchers have known for months that the station was going to hit Earth at some point, as Newsweek reported, in January or February of 2018. At least that was the prediction in September. China announced that it had lost control of the station a year before that, in September 2016, and the spacecraft was expected to land in a matter of months.

This week, however, the European Space Agency (ESA) honed the estimates. "Owing to the geometry of the station's orbit, we can already exclude the possibility that any fragments will fall over any spot further north than 43ºN or further south than 43ºS," says Holger Krag, Head of ESA's Space Debris Office. "This means that reentry may take place over any spot on Earth between these latitudes, which includes several European countries, for example."

And the current reports suggest it's looking more and more like February, narrowing the time frame at least a bit.

That statement suggests the spacecraft could land—after it burns its way through the atmosphere—many places in Europe and the U.S., including cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

Tiangong 1
Tiangong-1's predicted re-entry is on April 1. CMSE

But despite the violent imagery conjured up by the fiery crash-landing of a rogue space station, Andrew Abraham, a senior member of the nonprofit The Aerospace Corporation has said it's really nothing to worry about: "We have been making a special case of examining Tiangong-1 because of likely public and media interest in a re-entering space station; not because it is a particularly dangerous re-entry," Abraham told Newsweek.

As the likely date grows near, the ESA will be staging a campaign to monitor Tiangong-1, wherever it lands.

Still, predicting both the time and site of the landing is apparently tricky business.

"The date, time and geographic footprint of the reentry can only be predicted with large uncertainties. Even shortly before reentry, only a very large time and geographical window can be estimated," Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency, said in a statement.

While there's a lot the ESA can't say about Tiangong-1 just yet, they do seem to want to reassure the public about one thing.

The statement notes that "In the history of spaceflight, no casualties due to falling space debris have ever been confirmed."