China’s first and now defunct space lab, Tiangong-1, is expected to fall to Earth between March 31 and April 4 and its 8.5-ton main module should burn up during re-entry into the atmosphere, China’s space authority said on Monday.

Some media outlets and aerospace buffs have been speculating that the wreckage will hit everything from pedestrians to city buildings once it drifts close enough to Earth for gravity to take over and send it spiraling down.

It is thought that the Tiangong-1, which officially terminated its data communications with ground control on March 16, may fall and crash to the ground or hit the sea between 43 degrees north and south of the equator at an unknown longitude.

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Debris from Tiangong-1 may fall onto the above shadowed areas. Photo: Google Maps

Theoretically, cities within the “risk belt” are Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Sydney and many more, as well as the entire African continent.

But the China National Space Administration has refuted the “hysteria,” stressing that the remnants of Tiangong-1, if there are any, will only fall into the South Pacific, following the trajectory of the epic de-orbit of the Mir in 2001.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, among others, told The Guardian that parts of the craft such as the rocket engines are probably too dense and tough to be burned up upon re-entry and this may result in chunks of debris up to 100 kilograms in weight falling to the Earth’s surface.

China has dismissed reports that its Tiangong-1 space lab is running rogue. Photo: Xinhua
China has dismissed reports that its Tiangong-1 space lab is running rogue. Photo: Xinhua

The fact that Beijing also lies in Tiangong-1’s “hit belt” has prompted some space aficionados to wish the “rogue” space lab, now running wild at an average height of 216.2 kilometers, heads straight back to the Chinese capital, rather than anywhere else, on its “homecoming trip.”

But the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee calculates the odds of a person being hit by whatever is not burned up during re-entry to be 10 million times less than the chance of a person being hit by lightning.

It is impossible to name the exact re-entry location at this stage, a Chinese aerospace expert requesting anonymity told the Beijing-based tabloid Global Times on Monday.

Based on international precedents, the approximate re-entry location cannot be decided until the last two hours before Tiangong-1 starts to fall.

Tiangong-1 was catapulted into space atop a Long March rocket in September 2011 and has long outstayed its two-year in-orbit lift, conducting orbital rendezvous and docking experiments. One highlight of its life in orbit was in June 2012, when three taikonauts, or Chinese astronauts, entered the space lab, which triggered an outpouring of national pride among the Chinese masses.

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