Science

You Will Not Be Pounded By Burning Debris From China’s Space Station

So it’s true that China’s space station is hurtling towards an out-of-control re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. But that shouldn’t really worry you.

The Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, is predicted to crash down around the end of March or beginning of April, but the vast majority of it will burn up on the way down. There is a chance that some bits and pieces will survive the burn and make landfall, but the idea that they will hurt anyone is pretty far-fetched.

As The Aerospace Corporation points out in its predicted re-entry model, “the probability that a specific person (i.e., you) will be struck by Tiangong-1 debris is about one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot”.

In fact, only one person in the history of the world has ever been hit by a piece of space debris. Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma was struck in the shoulder while out walking one day, but was completely uninjured. She picked up the metallic debris and sent it to the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies, which confirmed that it was part of the fuel tank of a Delta II rocket that had launched a US Air Force Satellite in 1996.

Last year was the first time that space debris even indirectly caused any harm to humans, although tragically, it was death and serious injury. Debris from Russia’s Soyuz launches is purposefully left to fall to the ground on the Kazakhstan steppes and then later cleaned up. Two workers who were in the clean-up crew were injured when their truck was engulfed in flames from a dry grass fire set off by the wreckage. The men were extinguishing the grassfire when a strong gust of wind caught them the wrong way and one died while the other was hospitalised.

China’s first space lab was launched in September 2011 and originally had a mission span of two years. In 2016, after a variety of science experiments and the successful docking of two astronaut missions, it started to run into trouble.

An official statement from the Chinese manned space engineering office at the time said that data exchange between the ground and Tiangong-1 had ceased, but it’s still unclear whether China will attempt to regain control of the station’s re-entry when it gets closer to the time. It’s assumed for now that ground crews are unable to do so.

The European Space Agency has said that there is no way to get a precise time or location for the re-entry of the space station, which could land anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS. There is a higher probability of it landing in certain areas within that, but those areas include a wide swathe of North America, most of southern Europe, China itself, and even Argentina or New Zealand to name just a few.

However, about a day before re-entry, it should become possible to roughly predict which regions might see the fireball in the sky – up to plus or minus thousands of kilometres.

thank to Brid-Aine Parnell

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