China's first prototype space station is to crash to Earth over Easter scientists expect, amid rumours that the Chinese space agency has lost control of the craft.
Known as Tiangong-1 – meaning "heavenly palace" in Chinese – the craft is expected to drop out of orbit over the next week and plummet through Earth's atmosphere at a speed of seven kilometres per second.
Although the bus-sized spacecraft is most likely to burn up upon re-entry, some scientists fear that debris could survive the atmosphere and land anywhere 43 degrees either side of the equator.
Reseachers have warned that a number of the spacecraft's parts – including its dense rocket engines – would be unlikely to burn up, leaving chunks of the craft to crash towards the planet's surface.
The not-for-profit Aerospace Corporation predicts that Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere on 1 April, Easter Sunday – or three days either side of that date.
It assessed that it was most likely for the debris to fall within the extreme edges of the 43 degree bands, leaving the US, southern Europe and the Balkans as the most densely populated areas which could be hit.
On its southern band, the debris could fall on cities in Argentina and New Zealand, although the vast majority of the potential surface where debris could land are covered by ocean.
The craft – which is operated by the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSE) – has reached the end of its life-cycle in space.
It was launched by China's National Space Administration (CNSA) in 2011 as a prototype ahead of the Chinese large modular space station, the core module of which is expected to launch next year.
Predicting exactly where any impact locations could occur is beyond astronomer's current technical capabilities, according to the European Space Agency (ESA).
ESA stated: "Given the uncontrolled nature of this re-entry event, the zone over which fragments might fall stretches over a curved ellipsoid that is thousands of kilometres in length and tens of kilometres wide.
"While a wide area could be affected, it is important to point out that a large part of the Earth is covered by water or is uninhabited.
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"Hence the personal probability of being hit by a piece of debris from the Tiangong-1 is actually 10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning.
"In the history of spaceflight, no casualties due to falling space debris have ever been confirmed."