'Out-of-control' space station to crash into Earth in the next few weeks
Yes, this is a real story, and not the plot to Gravity.
In 2011, China launched the Tiangong-1 space station, an unmanned prototype that was equipped with two sleep stations for astronauts.
It was initially launched to serve as a manned laboratory and an experimental station to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities, but four years after launching it, Beijing revealed they would not be able to perform a re-entry because they had lost control of the space station.
Tiangong-1 is now on an orbital decay, which means it is slowly getting closer and closer to Earth's atmosphere, and is due to impact any week now.
The European Space Agency are keeping an eye on it, but the entry window is actually quite wide:
The current estimated #Tiangong1 reentry window is ~29 March to ~9 April; this is highly variable. Forecast provide by the @esaoperations #SpaceDebris office.
Details & FAQ: https://t.co/63dO8AJ87X pic.twitter.com/65scZxIBEA
— ESA (@esa) March 6, 2018
Just as wide is the potential window of where the space station will be potentially crash into Earth, with somewhere in the northern U.S. states, parts of South America, northern China, the Middle east, central Italy, northern Spain, New Zealand, the south of Africa or Tasmania in Australia all considered viable options at the moment.
In an official statement on their website, the Aerospace Corporation said the following:
"There is a chance that a small amount of debris from the module will survive reentry and impact the ground. Should this happen, any surviving debris would fall within a region that is a few hundred kilometres in size and centred along a point on the Earth that the station passes over."
"When considering the worst-case location… the probability that a specific person (i.e., you) will be struck by Tiangong-1 debris is about one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot."
Timothy Horbury, professor of physics at Imperial College London, told Newsweek that people shouldn't be too concerned about getting hit by bits of a space station:
"No one has ever been hurt by a piece of debris landing from space. The earth is very large so the likelihood someone will get hurt is very low. In 1979, bits of Skylab, America’s first space station, re-entered and landed in Australia. Nobody was hurt."
"China shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. If they had control of it, they would fire the engine and drop it into the pacific, but these things happen."
Still, just to be safe, probably best to stay indoors if/when we know that the space station has collided with our atmosphere.