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Chinese space station falling to Earth will appear as a fiery streak in our skies

Marnie O’Neill, March 27, 2018 9:09PM

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The Tiangong-1 Chinese space station is falling towards Earth. Picture: supplied media_cameraThe Tiangong-1 Chinese space station is falling towards Earth. Picture: supplied


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A Chinese space station the size of a school bus is falling towards Earth and experts predict it will appear as a fiery* streak across the sky over the Easter long weekend.

The 8.5 tonne Tiangong-1 will most likely re-enter our atmosphere* in a fireball between March 30 and April 4, according to The Aerospace Corporation, which has been tracking the station since 2016.

The Tiangong-1 Chinese space station is likely to smash back down into Earth sometime between March 24th and April 19th. Supplied media_cameraExperts believe the Tiangong-1 Chinese space station will appear as a fiery streak across the sky. Picture: supplied

Fears that the spacecraft is out of control mean it could hit Earth on the southernmost* tip of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand — but experts are telling people to not panic.

With 70 per cent of the world’s surface made up of sea and huge parts of Australia being unpopulated*, the chances of getting struck by a piece of falling space lab are extremely small, according to Warwick Holmes, who heads the University of Sydney’s School of Aerospace.

“Everyone thinks they’re going to get hit by the Chinese space station. I promise you it’s just not going to happen,” Mr Holmes told the ABC.

But it’s hard to predict exactly where Tiangong-1, whose name translates as “Heavenly Palace”, will land.

“We won’t have a firm idea of precisely* when — or any clue of where — until several hours prior to re-entry,” senior Aerospace Corporation technician Andrew Abraham told NBC.

“You’ve got a greater probability* of getting hit by a car crossing a Sydney road today than you’re going to get hit by the Chinese space station.”

The launch of Tiangong 1 in 2011. CREDIT: Reuters: Petar Kujundzic For Martin George space column for Hobart Mercury media_cameraThe launch of Tiangong 1 in 2011. Picture: Reuters: Petar Kujundzic


Tiangong-1 was only meant to be in space for two years after launching in 2011. China put the station into “sleep mode” and planned a controlled “deorbit”* using Tiangong-1’s thrusters* to guide it into the Earth’s atmosphere.

But in March 2016, China announced that Tiangong-1 had stopped sending data back to Earth.

The craft’s functions were “disabled”*, making a controlled re-entry impossible. Instead, Tiangong-1 is now being pulled back down to Earth by atmospheric drag.

As it gets closer to Earth, the drag will increase and it will drop faster as it loses energy.

The falling craft is being tracked by radar stations around the world.

Remains of Skylab found near Rawlina in Western Australia. Peter Ralphs (l) with Laurie Hotshone and a metal collar they removed 1979. media_cameraRemains of Skylab found near Rawlina in Western Australia. Peter Ralphs (left) with Laurie Hotshone and a metal collar they removed in 1979.


In July 1979, NASA’s 77-tonne Skylab space station burned up over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia after its meteorite shield and solar panels were damaged.

Big chunks of the space station survived the fall and landed near the WA town of Esperance.

Funnily, when members of the Skylab investigation team visited the town to inspect the damage and collect the station remnants, they were presented with a $400 littering* ticket.

“Upon our arrival, the president of the shire had arranged a mock ceremony in which an officer of the parks service ticketed NASA for littering, the evidence having been found all about the countryside,” reads a paragraph in NASA’s 1979 newsletter.

The ticket was issued as a joke and NASA never paid the $400 fine.


fiery: consisting of fire or burning strongly and brightly

atmosphere: the air and gases surrounding planet Earth

southernmost: located furthest to the south

unpopulated: no one lives there

precisely: exactly

probability: the chance of something happening

deorbit: to leave orbit, usually in descent phase

thrusters: used to propel the aircraft

disabled: out of action

littering: leaving rubbish lying around


1. Name the falling space station. 
2. Which country sent it into orbit. 
3. Where is it most likely to fall? 
4. Why can’t the space station’s fall be controlled? 
5. Name the space station that landed in pieces in WA in 1979. 


1. Space Station falling!

Read or listen to the article carefully and complete the following activities.

In your own words explain what is going to happen and why. Include only the most important information.
Should you be concerned about this new report? Use evidence from the article to support your answer.
How long has Tiangong-1 been in space? Was this expected?
How long ago had Tiangong-1 stopped sending data back to Earth?
What similar event happened in 1979? What was the joke played?

‘Technical language’ or ‘jargon’ are words that relate to the specific topic being discussed. Words or phrases that would only be used in relation to this topic and are unlikely to appear when discussing unrelated topics. Make a list of the ‘technical language’ used in this article. Write your understanding of each word or phrase.

Extension: Experts are predicting that Tiangong-1’s re-entry will appear as a ‘fiery streak across the sky’. This sounds exciting. On a piece of card, draw a picture of what you imagine the Tiangong-1 re-entering Earth’s atmosphere will look like. You will need to decide ‘when’ you think it will re-enter before completing this task as it will alter how your picture looks. You could use pencils, crayons, pastels, markers, or another medium that you have available, to make your work stand out.

Time: Allow 30 minutes

Curriculum links: English, The Arts – Visual Arts

2. Where will it land?

It is not known exactly where or when ‘Tiangong-1’ will land. Experts are tracking it and will get a better idea as it gets closer. Make a prediction of ‘where and when’ you think this space junk will land. Use information from the article to help you select a date and time and use Google Maps or an atlas to help you select ‘where’ it might land. Write the location name as well as its longitudinal and latitudinal reference (to the nearest whole number).

Make a class list of each person’ prediction and follow up this story after the Easter break to see whose prediction was the closest to where and when it landed.

Extension: Assume your prediction is correct, write a news bulletin to inform people in the area of this event taking place. Ensure you include the details of where and when the space junk is going to land, what people can expect to see and what they should do (your advice for this will depend on where you think it is going to land. If it is in the middle of the ocean your advice will be different to if it lands on land. Keep your news report calm and factual as you don’t want to create panic.

Time: Allow 40 minutes

Curriculum links: English, Humanities – Geography


After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

Please do not use one-word answers. Explain what you enjoyed or found interesting in the article. Use lots of adjectives.

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