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    Chinese space lab set to fall on Monday

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    The Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace 1), which is about the size of a bus, was sent into orbit in 2011 for experiments as

    part of China's space programme.

    It had been set for a controlled re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. But the lab stopped working in March 2016 - three years after it was last occupied - and there is no way of knowing where it will land.

    In ESA's most recent reentry forecast, the space debris reentry has been pushed back from Easter Sunday to 2 April.

    The agency now forecasts the time period to be between 12.25am UK time and later on Monday morning but stressed that this is "highly variable".

    Image:Tiangong-1's potential re-entry areas. Pic: ESA

    The agency explained: "One of the main reasons why it is so difficult to make an accurate reentry prediction, even if just a few days in advance of an expected reentry, materialised during Thursday this week.

    "A high-speed stream of particles from the Sun, which was expected to reach Earth and influence our planet's geomagnetic field, did, in fact, not have any effect, and calmer space weather around Earth and its atmosphere is now expected in the coming days.

    "This means that the density of the upper atmosphere, through which Tiangong-1 is moving, did not increase as predicted (which would have dragged the spacecraft down sooner) and hence the ESA Space Debris Office has adjusted the predicted decay rate."

    1540 UTC: Tiangong-1 crossing California coast heading SE pic.twitter.com/OyRwEXmtsi

    — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 31, 2018

    At 1810 UTC, Tiangong-1 is heading northeast over Indian Ocean and Malaysia pic.twitter.com/1lNTrT9awG

    — Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 31, 2018

    Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, noted how the spacecraft was orbiting above west of the Indian Ocean and Malaysia shortly after 7pm UK time, having earlier swung across the United States.

    Without being able to communicate with the space lab, Earth-based controllers have no way of firing its engines or thrusters and no way of controlling its descent.

    The craft is about 120 miles from Earth, down from about 185 miles in January, according to the European Space Agency.

    Researchers had said that a number of the spacecraft's parts - including its dense rocket engines - would be unlikely to burn up, leaving chunks of the craft to crash towards the planet's surface.

    Tiangong-1. is expected to re-enter on Easter Sunday. Pic: CMSE
    Image:Tiangong-1 is expected to re-enter on Easter Sunday. Pic: CMSE

    They fear that debris could survive the atmosphere and land anywhere 43 degrees either side of the equator.

    The China Manned Space Engineering Office said on its WeChat social media account that falling spacecraft do "not crash into the Earth fiercely like in sci-fi movies, but turn into a splendid (meteor shower) and move across the beautiful starry sky as they race towards the Earth".

    They said the atmospheric drag would tear away the external components of the craft when it gets to an altitude of around 60 miles.

    The heat will grow and friction will cause the main structure of the lab to burn or blow up, with most of the parts dissolving in the air.

    Every week, on average, a substantial, inert satellite drops into our atmosphere and burns up. Monitoring these reentries and warning European civil authorities has become routine work for ESA’s #spacedebris experts #tiangong1#reentry
    Read more: https://t.co/5eBJzT2E67pic.twitter.com/XI98duU1xV

    — ESA (@esa) March 30, 2018

    Some of the debris will fall slowly before landing, most likely in the ocean, the Chinese predicted.

    The ESA said nearly 6,000 uncontrolled re-entries of large objects have occurred over the past 60 years without anyone being hurt.

    China's foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: "I want to highlight that we attach importance to this issue and we've been dealing with it very responsibly in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.

    "If there is a need, we will promptly be in touch with the relevant country."

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    2018-12-11