Photos of Tiangong-1 hurtling towards Earth are terrifying: Should you worry?

A defunct Chinese space station is falling to Earth at 17,400 miles per hour and orbits about every 90 minutes.

China's abandoned space station Tiangong-1 is out of control, and it's going to crash to Earth very soon.

A flaming 8.5-tonne (more than 3,200 kilograms) space station the size of a school bus is hurtling towards Earth and there is every reason to be anxious, but people shouldn't panic. In 1979, for example, NASA's Skylab 77,111-kilogram (85-ton) space station reentered over Australia, scattering debris near the town of Esperance.

The European Space Agency is providing re-entry updates every day or two on its blog, including on the lab's potential landing zone, its altitude changes, and the re-entry window, which the agency now puts between March 30 and April 2.

The last manned mission to Tiangong-1 was in 2013. "Regular checks are also carried out to establish whether or not Tiangong-1 is still fully intact".

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Tiangong-1 is moving too fast and too randomly for trackers to narrow it down any more precisely than somewhere between 43 degrees north latitude and 43 degrees south latitude. "These include the natural rotation speed, the manner in which Tiangong-1 breaks up into several parts, the time of the break-up and the actual weather conditions in space". The vague guess has led experts to conclude that the country's space agency has lost all ability to direct the crashing station's course or know where it will land.

China is already building another more ambitious space station - Tiangong-2 was launched in 2016 - as well as a lunar base, and is ramping up its space program dramatically. An Aerospace graphic shows that parts of southern Lower Michigan fall into the regions listed with the highest probability of Tiangong-1 debris landing. Daily updates on its official website have tracked its gradual descent - average altitude as of Tuesday was 207.7 km - but not much else. "To be injured by one of these fragments is extremely unlikely".

However, the chances that a piece of Tiangong-1 will hit a person are less than 1 in 1 trillion, according to an FAQ published by The Aerospace Corporation. Indeed, the fact that our sun is now experiencing low activity in its solar cycle means the atmospheric gases have been less dense at higher altitudes, allowing Tiangong-1 to stay aloft longer than originally predicted.

The satellite flies over Italy between three and four times a day for around three minutes at a time, Paolo Volpini of the Italian Amateur Astronomers Union (UAI) told Ansa. Now that day is almost upon us, and the world is waiting to see where it might land.

  • Megan Austin