Updated: 9 p.m. | Posted: 6:30 p.m.
In the early morning hours of July 12, 1979 the sky over Esperance, Australia was split asunder by 86 tons of aluminum, steel and more burning to return to earth.
Skylab, the first U.S. space station, turned up with a bang. It burned up much lower in the atmosphere than expected and more of it survived all the way to the ground.
Now, somewhere in the next few days another patch of earth will be witness to another spectacular display as the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station falls out of orbit — if anyone is there. The orbit covers vast, sparsely populated areas.
According to European Space Agency, the orbit of Tiangong-1 takes it between the 43rd parallels north and south. That puts the orbit as far north as Mason City Iowa or Milwaukee, Wis. and as far south as Tasmania, south of Australia.
No one is quite sure where, or when exactly the station will deorbit, and in turn burn up. Space agencies know that the station is on an inevitable course back to earth, but when and where is complicated.
The atmosphere slowing the space station is as irregular as the sky that brings us rain, even our space weather affects it.
The station is also traveling very fast, around 17,000 miles per hour, and a second difference can change the point of reentry by five miles.
Tiangong-1 is much smaller than Skylab — weighing in at around 18,700 pounds or 9.35 tons — so, the amount of material to reach the ground will be smaller. It is roughly twice the size of the spacecraft used to resupply the International Space Station.
Watch another reentry
NASA closely monitored the Hayabusa spacecraft as it safely burned up in the atmosphere after setting its capsule free to parachute to safety with its asteroid dust intact. This was a very controlled reentry to ensure the recovery of the capsule, thus providing the opportunity for filming.
Update: According to The Guardian, the Tiangong-1 space station crashed in the Pacific Ocean.
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