An abandoned, out of control space station is hurtling towards Earth - and technology developed by a group of Maltese scientists is being used to help track it.
Scientists with the University of Malta's Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy have developed a way of measuring radio echoes from falling space debris, allowing experts to 'watch' space junk as it approaches Earth.
The technology, which has been funded by the Italian Space Agency, has been installed on a radio telescope in Bologna and is being used to keep tabs on the Tiangong-1 space station.
China's 8,000kg Tiangong-1 has been in orbit for six years. Scientists planned on returning it to Earth using a controlled re-entry, but those plans went out the window in 2016, when ground crews lost control of the space vehicle.
"It’s like having the equivalent of a large truck hurtling towards the earth from approximately 2,000km,” physicist Kristian Zarb Adami, who heads the University's ISSA, said.
The space station is now expected to smash into the Earth's atmosphere at some point between Good Friday and Easter Monday, with a possible impact zone stretching from 43ºN to 43ºS - a wide band covering all of Africa and Australia, much of Latin America and the Mediterranean basin.
Data gathered from the Bologna telescope is being combined with information gathered by NASA and European Space Agency teams to paint a more accurate picture of where the debris will land and how large it is likely to be.
"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," Prof. Zarb Adami noted.
Despite the hi-tech tracking underway, atmospheric density, the spacecraft's orientation and slight variations in its location and velocity could all throw scientists' landing predictions off-kilter, he noted.
But anyone shifting in their seat at the thought of a space station apocalypse can sleep easy, with the odds of being hit by a piece of space metal close to zero.
"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."
The ISSA system was developed by Prof. Zarb Adami's team Alessio Magro, Denis Cutajar and Josef Borg.
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