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Follow China's Doomed Satellite As It Crashes To Earth

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China's out-of-control Tiangong-1 (translated as "Heavenly Palace") space station, carrying a "highly toxic" cargo, is expected to come crashing down to earth sometime on April 1st - however just where it will hit is still up for debate.

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Over the past day, the European Space Agency, the California-based Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) and other space junk watchers have begun to predict a more specific time when Tiangong-1 will likely break up into fireballs shooting across the sky, perhaps leaving some smaller bits to impact the surface.

As CNET reports, CORDS has zeroed in on early April 1, while the US military's Joint Space Operations Center predicts an earlier re-entry at 5:52 p.m. PT Saturday, March 31, with a margin of error of 14 hours. ESA took a pass on declaring a specific time, saying instead it expects Tiangong-1 to reenter between early morning PT Saturday and Sunday Morning.

If you'd like to track the nine-ton school bus-sized station full of "highly toxic" chemicals, you can do so with the following real time tracker courtesy of Satview (please click on the image for the interactive map):

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... or at the following websites:

Meanwhile, the Aerospace Corporation has put together an excellent video on the reentry:

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Weighing in at 18,750 lbs, the two-module spacecraft - which as noted above means "Heavenly Palace" - lost contact with China's space agency on March 21, 2016 after the completion of its extended mission, which included a six year service life that saw two manned missions to perform experiments for the larger multiple-module Tiangong station.

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While most of the space station should burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, thousands of pounds of debris is expected to survive reentry, with a 1-in-10,000 chance of hitting a populated area

That said, just where the station will hit is still anyone's guess.  According to experts tracking the space station, it has the highest chance of crashing into cities along a narrow strip around latitudes of 43 degrees north and south.

While the list of possible targets include locations in Northern China, South America, Southern Africa, Northern Spain and the United States. Lower Michigan in particular is among the regions with the highest probability of a direct hit.

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According to a FAQ about the Tiangong-1, the actual impact of the space station might not even be the most dangerous aspect of the reentry. Potentially hazardous materials including hydrazine, a highly toxic chemical used in rocket fuel, might survive re-entry. If humans or animals come into contact with large quantities of the substance, it can cause serious liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.

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Mission Background (via the Aerospace Corporation):

  • Tiangong-1 is the first space station built and launched by China.
  • It was designed to be a manned lab as well as an experiment/demonstration for the larger, multiple-module Tiangong station.
  • The spacecraft was launched aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket on 2011 September 30 UTC.
  • There are 2 modules that compose Tiangong-1: A habitable experimental module and a resources module.
  • It has a habitable volume of 15 cubic meters.
  • Tiangong-1 is equipped with 2 sleep stations for astronauts.
  • The first Chinese orbital docking occurred between Tiangong-1 and an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft on 2011 November 2.
  • 2 manned missions were completed to visit Tiangong-1: Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10.

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