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No April Fools’: Chinese space station could smash into Earth today

An artist's depiction shows Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station that will plummet to Earth soon. (Courtesy Aerospace Corp.)

The 9.4-ton Chinese space station about the size of a school bus now hurtling through space will probably smash through the Earth’s atmosphere late Sunday, experts said.

Aerospace Corp., which has been tracking the approach of unmanned Tiangong-1, said the space station also known as “Heavenly Place” should re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere Sunday shortly after 8 p.m. ET, give or take 2.5 hours.

The European Space Agency estimated re-entry would take place late Sunday or early Monday. The agency’s estimated point of re-entry includes most of the globe, including all but the northernmost sections of the U.S. Canada, Russia and Northern Europe are among areas that also appear to be in the clear.

Any debris that survives likely will hit water or ground within 20 minutes of the space station’s entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA Administrator and university professor at Syracuse University, told USA TODAY.

Anyone who sees what could be debris from the Heavenly Palace should not touch it or inhale its fumes, Aerospace Corp. warns. The station carried a “highly” toxic substance called hydrazine.

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Before the re-entry, when and where the 34-foot long space station landed was largely a mystery, because the Chinese stopped receiving data from it in 2016.

The China Manned Space Engineering Office, attempting to assuage concerns that the crash could result in damage or deaths, said Sunday that the Tiangong-1 space station would mostly likely burn up before it hits, the South China Morning Post reported.

The manned space office said the main structure will burn up from the heat and friction. Any debris that reaches the ground will be “floating down at a very slow speed due to their small mass,” the report said.

The space station is not likely to affect aviation activities, the report added.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was taking no chances. Snyder activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center to monitor the space station’s re-entry. Still, the odds of being hit by part of Tiangong are less than of winning the Powerball lottery — and those odds are about 1 in 292 million.

Tiangong-1 was the first space station built and launched by China. Launched in September 2011, it has two sleep stations and has housed two manned missions.