China's first space station, called Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace", will soon explode over Earth into a rain of fiery debris.
Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit research company, released a fresh prediction for the derelict spacecraft's coming doom before the New Year, stating that "Tiangong-1 is predicted to reenter in mid March 2018 ± 2 weeks."
This means the Chinese space station could reenter Earth's atmosphere toward the end of February, or as late as early April. When it does, extreme heat and pressure caused by plowing through air at more than 15,000 miles per hour will destroy the 8.5-ton vessel.
Astonishing space moments of 2017
Astonishing space moments of 2017
REFILE - CORRECTING HOW PHOTO WAS TAKEN A composite image of 21 separate photographs taken with a single fixed camera shows the solar eclipse as it creates the effect of a diamond ring at totality as seen from Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet (2,025m) is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 35ï¿½33'24" N, 83ï¿½29'46" W. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Enthusiasts Tanner Person (R) and Josh Blink, both from Vacaville, California, watch a total solar eclipse while standing atop Carroll Rim Trail at Painted Hills, a unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, near Mitchell, Oregon, U.S. August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image is near 44ï¿½39'117'' N 120ï¿½6'042'' W. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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A total solar eclipse occurs on August 21, 2017, at Mary's River Covered Bridge, in Chester, IL, USA. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The total solar eclipse Monday August 21, 2017 in Madras, Oregon.
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ROXBURY, NJ - AUGUST 21: The Moon is seen passing in front of the Sun during a Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017 at Roxbury High School in Roxbury, NJ. A total solar eclipse swept across a narrow portion of the contiguous United States from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. A partial solar eclipse was visible across the entire North American continent along with parts of South America, Africa, and Europe. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
People watch the total solar eclipse in Guernsey, Wyoming U.S. August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Cheerleaders use solar viewing glasses before welcoming guests to the football stadium to watch the total solar eclipse at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S., August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 37ï¿½42'25" N 89ï¿½13'10" W. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Guests watch the sun re-emerge after a total eclipse at the football stadium at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, U.S., August 21, 2017. Location coordinates for this image are 37ï¿½42'25" N 89ï¿½13'10" W. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
One of the last looks at Saturn and its main rings as captured by Cassini. When the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, the planet's northern hemisphere, seen here at top, was in darkness in winter. Now at journey's end, the entire north pole is bathed in sunlight of summer. Images taken October 28, 2016 and released September 11, 2017. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
Cassini team members embrace after the spacecraft was deliberately plunged into Saturn, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, U.S., September 15, 2017. NASA/Joel Kowsky/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.??
The spacecraft Cassini is pictured above Saturn's northern hemisphere prior to making one of its Grand Finale dives in this NASA handout illustration obtained by Reuters August 29, 2017. NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An illustration released by NASA on October 16, 2017 shows a hot, dense, expanding cloud of debris from two neutron stars before they collided. The image was released to mark the first time scientists detected light tied to a gravitational-wave event, from two merging neutron stars in the galaxy NGC 4993, located about 130 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra. NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
The collision of two black holes - a tremendously powerful event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO - is seen in this still image from a computer simulation released in Washington February 11, 2016. Scientists have for the first time detected gravitational waves, ripples in space and time hypothesized by Albert Einstein a century ago, in a landmark discovery announced on Thursday that opens a new window for studying the cosmos. REUTERS/The SXS (Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes)/Handout via Reuters FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, Oct. 16, 2017 -- Jo van den Brand, spokesperson of the Virgo collaboration, speaks at a news conference about the update on the search for gravitational waves in Washington D.C., the United States, on Oct. 16, 2017. Scientists announced Monday that they have for the first time detected the ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves as well as light from a spectacular collision of two neutron stars. The detection of the gravitational wave signal, called GW170817, was made at 8:41 a.m. EDT (1241 GMT) on August 17 by twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty Images)
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Not everything may vanish, though.
There's a good chance gear and hardware left onboard could survive intact all the way to the ground, according to Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer and atmospheric reentry specialist. That durability is thanks to Tiangong-1's onion-like layers of protective material.
"The thing about a space station is that it's typically got things on the inside," Ailor, who works for the Aerospace Corporation, previously told Business Insider. "So basically, the heating will just strip these various layers off. If you've got enough layers, a lot of the energy is gone before a particular object falls out, it doesn't get hot, and it lands on the ground."
When NASA's Columbia space shuttle broke up over the US, for example, he said investigators recovered a working flight computer — an artifact that ultimately helped explain how the deadly incident happened.
Predicting Tiangong-1's coming crash to Earth
China's Tiangong-1 — the "Heavenly Palace" — is a two-room space station with room for two taikonauts (Chinese astronauts). It has a volume of 15 cubic meters, which makes it 60 times smaller than the football-field-size International Space Station (ISS).
Although China superseded Tiangong-1 in 2016 with a follow-up space station (Tiangong-2), space experts hailed it as a major achievement for the nation's space program, since it helped pioneer a permanent Chinese presence in orbit.
"It conducted six successive rendezvous and dockings with spacecraft Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 and completed all assigned missions, making important contributions to China's manned space exploration activities," according to a June 2017 memo that China submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
In the same note, China said it lost contact with the spacecraft on March 16, 2016, after it "fully fulfilled its historic mission."
By May 2017, Tiangong-1 was coasting about 218 miles above Earth and dropping by about 525 feet per day, according to The Guardian. Its altitude has since plummeted to less than 175 miles, according to Aerospace Corporation data.
"For any vehicle like this, the thing that brings them down is atmospheric drag," Ailor said. "Why there's a lot of uncertainty in the predictions is that it depends on what's the sun's doing, to a large measure."
The sun can unleash solar storms and solar flares — bursts of X-rays and ultraviolet light — that heat Earth's outer atmosphere. This heating causes the air to expand, rise higher above the planet. That forces low-flying objects like Tiangong-1 to plow through denser gases.
"This puts just a little bit of a higher force on these objects that causes them to come down," Ailor said.
An analysis of the combined effects of solar activity, Tiangong-1's orbital speed, direction, altitude, and other factors helped the Aerospace Corporation provide its most recent estimate of a mid-March de-orbit. Leading up to the big moment, however, the company may refine its estimate as conditions change.
What will happen when China's space station is destroyed
When Tiangong-1 does crash, it's most likely to happen over the ocean, since water covers about 71% of Earth's surface. But there's a decent chance some pieces may strike land as it breaks up over a long and thin oval-shaped footprint.
"The whole footprint length for something like this could be 1,000 miles or so," Ailor said, with heavier pieces at the front and lighter debris toward the back.
If anyone is lucky enough to witness Tiangong-1's atmospheric breakup from an airplane, it may look similar to the destruction of the European Space Agency's 14-ton Automated Transfer Vehicle — an expendable spacecraft that was once used to resupply the ISS:
When asked for comment on Tiangong-1's threat to ongoing NASA missions, the space agency told Business Insider it "actually doesn't track any debris."
Ailor said pieces of China's space station are "really unlikely" to hit anyone or anything on Earth.
"It's not impossible, but since the beginning of the space age .... a woman who was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma is the only one we're aware of who's been touched by a piece of space debris," he said.
Should a hunk of titanium, an intact computer, or other pieces smash through a roof or windshield, however, international space law assures that victims will be compensated.
"It's China's responsibility if someone gets hurt or property gets damaged by this," NASA's spokesperson said.