Maltese scientists have joined a team of international space experts to track China’s abandoned space station, which is expected to make a fiery re-entry and crash back to Earth over Easter weekend.
Using sophisticated technology funded by the Italian Space Agency, the Maltese team from the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy (ISSA) is monitoring China’s first prototype space station, Tiangong-1, to predict where the pieces might fall and sound the alarm if necessary.
“The 8,000kg space station, which has been in orbit for six years and been decommissioned in 2016, is now abandoned and out of control. So just imagine, it’s like having the equivalent of a large truck hurtling towards the earth from approximately 2,000km,” ISSA director Kristian Zarb Adami said.
But according to the European Space Agency and space debris experts the chances of being personally hit by a piece of space metal are practically zero, especially if you live in Malta.
“The friction caused by the Earth’s atmosphere on its re-entry will mean that the satellite will get destroyed, but there is a good chance that some parts will survive re-entry and fall towards the earth. But luckily, most of the Earth is made up of water and it is likely that the Tiangong-1 will end up in a safe unpopulated zone like the Pacific,” Prof. Zarb Adami added.
There are approximately 20,000 objects orbiting our Earth that have to be constantly tracked by the likes of ESA and NASA to make sure valuable space assets are safe from collisions with leftover space debris objects.
The team of scientists at ISSA, led locally by Prof. Kristian Zarb Adami, have developed a new system that allows not only the detection of such space debris, but also enables scientists to predict where it will land.
Dr Alessio Magro, together with Denis Cutajar and Josef Borg, has devised an ingenious way of using a bi-static radar system based in Sardinia and Bologna to measure radar echoes from the falling objects.
It is due to the Maltese scientists’ efforts that for the first time a multi-pixel system has been installed on the Bologna radio telescope to watch the debris fall towards the earth.
However, even with this new sophisticated technology, it remains difficult to estimate the debris’ final landing place with a high degree of accuracy, so the exact moment of the Tiangong-1’s descent will only be determined just a few hours before.
“This is because the event depends on a number of factors including the variation in density of the atmosphere, the orientation of the spacecraft and the uncertainties in its exact location and velocity,” Prof. Zarb Adami said.
To reduce this uncertainty, the prediction of the space station’s decaying orbit is being monitored and updated with each pass of the Tiangong-1 over Bologna. The information is then combined with that collected by other teams from NASA and ESA to seek confirmation of the debris’ size and orbit to predict where the debris will come to land.
The latest predictions are that the Tiangong-1 will hurtle towards Earth between Friday Easter Money and the impact zone could be anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS.