How to Watch the Chinese Space Lab Tiangong-1 Plummet to Earth

STR/Getty Images
STR/Getty Images

It won't be a bird or a plane: If you look up to the sky next week, you may see a Chinese spacecraft on one of its last cruises around Earth before it hurtles through our atmosphere and explodes in a fiery hail of debris.

The space lab, called Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace"), was launched by the Chinese space agency on September 29, 2011, Space.com reports. It was the agency's first module to test docking technology, which is essential for bringing astronauts and cargo into space. In its four-and-a-half-year mission, Tiangong-1 successfully docked with one unmanned and two manned spacecraft.

Two years ago, Chinese officials said Tiangong-1 had completed its mission. Relegated to space-junk status, the module began circling the Earth on its slow journey toward oblivion.

Chinese officials say Tiangong-1 is now orbiting Earth every 88 minutes at an altitude of 134 miles, and getting closer to our planet's atmosphere each day. It's expected to fall to Earth sometime between early morning on March 30 and early morning on April 2, with April 1 being the potential sweet spot for skywatchers. (Track its progress here.)

As it tumbles through space, the 34-foot-long craft will appear to flicker with different levels of brightness. But its final destination is anyone's guess. Taingong-1 is predicted to fall anywhere between 42.8° north latitude and 42.8° south latitude—a circumglobal band roughly between the latitudes of Boston, Massachusetts and Christchurch, New Zealand. That target includes about 80 percent of the contiguous United States as well as huge areas of China, Japan, Chile, Argentina, southern Europe, and Australia.

As Tiangong-1 plunges into Earth's atmosphere, it will ignite and break into large chunks before crumbling further. About 10 miles above Earth, the fiery bits—which could still weigh more than 200 pounds—will lose velocity and rain straight down.

As Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told The Guardian in 2016, "Yes, there is a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone's car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone's roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage."

Be careful out there.

[h/t Space.com]

A Lunar Crash May Have Left Behind a Library of Human Civilization on the Moon

Matt Cardy, Getty Images
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

SpaceIL, the Israeli-based private space travel nonprofit backed by billionaire Morris Kahn, came up short in their attempt to land the first commercial payload ever delivered on the Moon. Their Beresheet lander crashed last Thursday, April 11, after a technical glitch prompted its engine to power off and then back on, causing it to come in too fast and strike the lunar surface.

While not ultimately successful, the voyage may have still managed to mark a milestone in the history of lunar exploration. The Arch Mission Foundation, which worked with SpaceIL to put a massive amount of information—including the entirety of Wikipedia—on board, announced this week that the digital library may have survived the impact. That would make it the first substantial repository of knowledge to occupy the Moon.

The data, which was dubbed the Lunar Library, holds an impressive wealth of material—the equivalent of roughly 30 million pages in all. In addition to Wikipedia, there are books selected by Project Gutenberg, 60,000 images, language keys, and a curated selection of music. All of this humanity was packed into 25 nickel discs that are each 40 microns thick. The entire library is roughly the size and shape of a DVD.

Arch Mission Foundation believes that the discs could have survived the impact based on what's known about its trajectory and the crash and is working to confirm its existence. Even if it didn't, there's still something to be said for the idea that "archaeological ruins" of human knowledge now exist there.

The Lunar Library wouldn't be the only human relic left behind. Alan Shepard, the fifth man ever to walk on the Moon in 1971, left golf balls after playing a lunar round. In 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 left a 1.5-inch silicon disk containing goodwill messages from prominent figures in 75 countries written microscopically.

SpaceIL intends to pursue a second lunar lander, with a launch date to be announced. While other countries have landed a vehicle on the Moon—the United States, China, and Russia—this would have marked the first time for a private entity.

[h/t Fast Company]

A Blue Moon—May's Flower Moon—Is Coming Next Month

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Exactly how often is "once in a blue moon"? According to NASA, the celestial occurrence isn't especially rare: A blue moon happens about once every 2.5 years. The next blue moon will appear the night of May 18, 2019, and because the event marks the first full moon of May, it will also be a flower moon.

What Is a Blue Moon?

Instead of describing color, like a blood moon, the term blue moon is reserved for an additional full moon that appears within a certain window of time. There are two types of blue moons: monthly blue moons and seasonal blue moons. A monthly blue moon, the more popular of the two definitions, is the second full moon that occurs in a single calendar month. This usage is fairly recent, and likely originated from an error printed in a 1946 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

A seasonal blue moon is the older meaning, and it describes the third moon in a season that has four full moons. Each season—winter, spring, summer, and fall—typically sees three full moons, and in the rare event there are four, the third is singled out as the anomaly. This is sometimes the preferred definition of astronomy-minded people because it's based on natural equinoxes and solstices rather than the Gregorian calendar.

When to See the Blue Flower Moon

The full moon set to light up the night sky in May will be a seasonal blue moon. The time of year it occurs—May—makes it a flower moon. The first full moon of each month has a special name: A worm moon is a full moon in April, and a wolf moon is a full moon in January.

To catch 2019's blue flower moon, look up the night of May 18. The Moon will be at its fullest when it's precisely at 180° ecliptic longitude opposite the Sun—which occurs at 5:11 p.m. ET on May 18.

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