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The uncontrolled Chinese space laboratory is falling towards Earth – and Iowa may be in the landing zone



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This Easter weekend could bring an unexpected view of the heavens.

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"We North Americans could actually see it, even when it's daytime," said Iowa Assistant of Physics and Astronomy, Allison Jaynes.

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The "it" to which she refers is Tiangong-1

, a space laboratory that China launched in September 2011 but lost control and communication for unknown reasons.

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It is now climbing to the planet and is expected to fall to Earth between Friday and Monday.

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The range of potential landing sites is extraordinarily wide at this point. In fact – with the lab still a way out – all of Africa and Southeast Asia, along with much of South America and the bottom two-thirds of North America, are considered possible landing zones for small parts of the school bus-sized station that does not burn up re-entry.

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"Iowa is one of many, many, many places we have a high population density and we are on the potential reentry path," said Jaynes. "We just have to wait."

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Scientists are following the path of the lab in the hope of informing the public when they get more clarity.

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"It's likely to affect the water, the ocean, because most of our planet is the ocean," Jaynes said.

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Even if it does not arrive in the United States, sky-gazers might catch a glimpse of his arrival. It should be bright enough to see even during the day, according to Jaynes.

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"It will look like something racing through the burning atmosphere," she said.

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The pieces that are expected to survive the atmospheric fall will probably be as big as a fist, according to Jaynes. And the likelihood of anyone meeting "a small patch of a human wandering the earth" is one in a trillion.

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That's what Jaynes – and others like her – hoped for an Iowa flyby.

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"It just depends on chance," she said. "If it comes across the Midwest in North America by any chance, then that's great, it's actually pretty cool for us because we'll see it."

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Uncontrolled "space junk" has crashed onto the planet before, although the global connectivity that is now possible over the Internet is a unique experience. NASA is planning updates to potential airfields, while people with phones and cameras can contribute to the persecution.

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"They hope that part of the civic-scientific aspect sets in, where people look for it, notice it when it occurs, take pictures, note down their longitude and latitude, and where they observe it." Said Jaynes. "It's going to get the whole world looking for this pretty rare event."

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But it could become less rare as countries including the United States are planning more heavenly exploration and activity.

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"We will bring more and more spaceships to the region near Earth," she said. "They'll have to come down again sometime."

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NASA hopes that public awareness can also educate individuals on what to do when they encounter a piece of space debris: do not touch it and contact authorities, as some of which may contain toxic materials.

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Jaynes and many of her colleagues focus on education.

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"If the timing is right," she said, "maybe we could do it Take a course outside and look at it."


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