How to track China’s falling space lab

Breaking down the fall.
Breaking down the fall.
Image: Aerospace Corporation
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China’s first space lab is coming back to earth in days. Launched in 2011, Tiangong-1, whose name means Heavenly Palace, was a milestone that marked China’s determination to catch up to or even outpace global space powers.

The lab ceased functioning in 2016 and is now making an uncontrolled descent, which makes it hard to predict exactly where it will fall. Although most of the lab, which weighs 8.5 metric tons, is expected to burn up as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, some small fragments could survive. But don’t worry, it’s quite rare for people here on earth to be hit by space debris.

The lab fragments, if any, are expected to land somewhere between the latitudes of 43ºN and 43ºS, an area largely covered by the ocean but that also includes countries like the US, Brazil, Spain, and China itself. If you want to track Tiangong-1’s return, here’s how to do it:

Space agencies

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 currently puts between March 30 and April 2.

China’s Manned Space Engineering Office has been making a daily announcement (link in Chinese) on the average orbiting height of the lab since the middle of this month. In May 2017, the agency told the United Nations that the lab would land between October that year and April 2018. The downside, however, is that the announcements are only available in Chinese. The agency said Monday (March 26) that the lab could fall between March 31 to April 4 (link in Chinese).

Research organizations

Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded US space-research organization, features a re-entry dashboard on its site, which presents a map of the lab’s current position and orbit and predicted time to re-entry. The dashboard updates every few minutes. The firm predicts that the lab will land April 1, plus or minus two days.

Tiangong-1's reentry dashboard.
Aerospace Corporation’s Tiangong-1 re-entry dashboard.
Image: Screengrab from Aerospace Corporation

Morris Jones, an Australian space analyst, told Quartz he recommends, a satellite-tracking site established in 2006. The site offers real-time tracking of the lab’s orbiting period, a map of the lab’s location, such as the countries and oceans it’s flying above, and its orbiting speed—right now it’s circling earth once every 90 minutes or so. It can also use your IP address to give you an idea of the lab’s location relative to you.

Heavens-above, a satellite tracking site recommended by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University,  can tell you when you can see Tiangong-1 passing in the sky above your city, and which direction it’s moving in.

Of course, there’s a chance you might just spot the lab as it burns up during its fall. McDowell says that might look like what some people saw when a rocket of about Tiangong-1’s weight fell near the Peru-Brazil border in January—a fiery, white light in the sky.

If fragments of the lab do fall near you, don’t touch them. They could potentially be covered by a toxic, corrosive substance, says the Aerospace Corporation.

Social media

You can also keep track of where the Tiangong-1 is in tweets, including from McDowell, as well as other scientists and institutions, such as Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques.