Chinese space station falling: Chances of getting hit pretty "slim," expert says

A photo of the giant screen at the Jiuqu

A photo of the giant screen at the Jiuquan space center shows the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft approching Tiangong-1 module for the automatic docking on July 18, 2012. 

STR / AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- China abandoned its space station in 2016, and it's been losing altitude and is falling to Earth. But when and where will it land?

Most of it will burn up in the atmosphere, but what's left will come crashing down sometime in the next week, striking somewhere between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south, an area that includes most of the United States.

If you find that frightening, space expert John Logsdon of George Washington University has a word of advice: Relax. He says the chances of a piece hitting someone on Earth are "very slim." But he adds, "not zero."

Maybe not zero, but the chances are about 1 million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.

China's Long March 2F rocket carrying th
China's Long March 2F rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 module, or "Heavenly Palace," blasts off from the Jiuquan launch centre in Gansu province on Sept. 29, 2011. Getty

China launched the Tiangong-1 space station in 2011. "Tiangong" means "heavenly palace," but Logsdon says it's really just a piece of obsolete space junk.

"You know, like a Winnebago in space."

As we all learned as children, what goes up must come down.

"It gradually slows down over time and slows down and slows down til eventually it's not going fast enough to stay in orbit," Logsdon said.

If you feel like you've seen this movie before, you probably have. The movie "Gravity" with Sandra Bullock featured a satellite named Tiangong.

Exactly when the real Tiangong will hit the Earth is still up in the air.

"At this point, we know within plus or minus two days of April the first it's likely to re-enter. April Fools," said Logsdon.

If it does falls on April Fools' Day, it would be space junk with a sense of humor.

  • Chip-Reid_bio_140x100_bw.jpg
    Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.