Education

Uncontrolled Chinese space lab drops toward Earth - and Iowa could be in the landing zone

Huge swath of possible landing zones for small debris

(File photo) A Chinese national flag flutters at the headquarters of a commercial bank on a financial street near the headquarters of the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank, in central Beijing in this November 24, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Files
(File photo) A Chinese national flag flutters at the headquarters of a commercial bank on a financial street near the headquarters of the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank, in central Beijing in this November 24, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Files

This Easter weekend could bring an unexpected celestial sight.

“We in North American might be able to actually see it, even if it’s during the daytime,” said University of Iowa assistant physics and astronomy professor Allison Jaynes.

The “it” she’s referencing is Tiangong-1, a space lab that China launched in September 2011 but lost control of and communication with for unknown reasons.

It’s now careening back toward the planet and is expected to fall to Earth sometime between Friday and Monday.

The band of prospective landing sites is extraordinarily broad at this point. In fact — with the lab still a ways out — all of Africa and Southeast Asia, along with much of South America and the lower two-thirds of North America, are considered possible landing zones for small portions of the school bus-sized station that don’t burn up on re-entry.

“Iowa is one of many, many, many places where we have high population density and we are in the possible re-entry path,” Jaynes said. “We are just going to have to wait and see.”

Scientists are tracking the lab’s path in hopes of informing the public as they get more clarity.

“Although, in all likelihood, it will impact the water, the ocean, because most of our planet is made up of ocean,” Jaynes said.

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Even if it doesn’t come down in the United States, skygazers might catch a glimpse of its arrival. It’s supposed to be bright enough to see even during the day, according to Jaynes.

“It will look like something careening through atmosphere on fire,” she said.

The pieces expected to survive the atmospheric tumble are anticipated to be about the size of a fist, according to Jaynes. And the odds that any will hit “a tiny speck of a human who is wandering around on the Earth” are one in a trillion.

That has Jaynes — and others like her — hoping for an Iowa flyby.

“It just depends on chance,” she said. “If it happens to come in over North America, over the Midwest, then that’s great. It’s actually pretty cool for us, because we’ll get to see it.”

Uncontrolled “space junk” has crashed into the planet before, although today’s global connectivity enabled through the internet provides a unique experience. NASA plans to provide updates on potential landing sites, while individuals with phones and cameras might contribute to the tracking.

“They are hoping for some of the citizen science aspect to kick in, where people will be looking for it, noticing it when it occurs, taking pictures, noting their longitudes and latitudes, and where they’re observing it,” Jaynes said. “It kind of gets this whole world looking for this pretty rare event.”

But it could become less rare as countries including the United States plan more celestial exploration and activity.

“We are going to be launching more and more spacecraft into the region near Earth,” she said. “They have to come back down at some point.”

NASA is hoping the public awareness also could educate individuals about what to do should they encounter a piece of space junk: Don’t touch it and contact authorities, as some of it could contain toxic materials.

Education is where Jaynes and many of her colleagues are focused.

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“If the timing is right,” she said, “we might be able to take a class outside and look at it.”

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