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China's Big Tiangong-1 Space Lab May Fall to Earth This Month

China's Tiangong-1 space lab art
An artist’s illustration of China’s Tiangong-1 space lab in Earth orbit. (Image credit: CMSA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has issued a new re-entry forecast for China's Tiangong-1 space lab.

The 8.5-ton spacecraft is now expected to fall into Earth's atmosphere between March 24 and April 19, though ESA officials stressed that this is a rough estimate.

"Re-entry will take place anywhere between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south (e.g. Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, etc.)" latitude, officials with the Space Debris Office at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, wrote in an update last week. "Areas outside of these latitudes can be excluded. At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible." 

Tiangong-1 was the first space lab built by China. It launched in late September 2011, to help the nation master the technologies needed to construct and operate a crewed space station. China aims to have such a station up and running in Earth orbit by the 2020s.

A map showing the area between 42.8 degrees north and 42.8 degrees south latitudes (in green), over which Tiangong-1 could re-enter. The graph at left shows population density. (Image credit: ESA CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

The first Chinese orbital docking occurred between Tiangong-1 and an unpiloted Shenzhou spacecraft on Nov. 2, 2011. Two crewed missions later visited Tiangong-1: Shenzhou 9 and Shenzhou 10, which launched in June 2012 and June 2013, respectively.

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