A Chinese satellite has gone out of control and will plunge to Earth in some time in the next year, IFL Science is reporting.
Tiangong-1, like the International Space Station and other satellites, requires periodic rocket boosts to keep it in orbit. That’s because the Earth’s gravitational pull slowly pulls just about everything towards it. Even things that are in orbit will eventually be dragged down, even if the process takes months or even years.
Once Chinese space officials lost control of Tiangong-1, it became only a matter of time until the laws of physics took over and brought it “home,” so to speak. Tiangong-1, launched in 2011, officially “ceased functioning” in March 2016; it’s expected to fall back to Earth within the year.
So should you plan on dodging falling space debris for the next few months? Probably not.
For starters, the Earth’s atmosphere largely protects those of us on the ground from space debris, both the artificial kind (space junk) and the natural kind (meteors and such). If you’ve ever seen a so-called “shooting star,” what you’re actually seeing is a bit of rock or metal or whatever burning up as it travels through the atmosphere.
Even if an intact chunk of the satellite did manage to survive the journey through the atmosphere, the odds are good it will land in the ocean, since oceans cover 70 percent of the surface of the earth, give or take. Even if it overcomes those odds and lands on the ground, the chance that it would land in a populated area is also minimal.
All things considered, the dead satellite is far more likely to land harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean than it is in, say, downtown Topeka.
Of course, space debris has caused damage in populated areas before. Most famously, in 2013 a naturally-occurring meteor tore into the atmosphere and exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia (population: a million, give or take). As the Guardian reported at the time, some 1,200 people were injured – not from the debris itself, but from retinal burns, glass from shattered windows, and similar, collateral effects.
Tiangong-1 will not be the first man-made satellite to have lost control and plunged back to Earth. In 2001, Russia’s Mir Space Station fell back to Earth after two decades in service. A generation earlier, in 1979, America’s Skylab fell back to Earth, with semi-intact pieces of it landing near Perth, Australia.
[Featured Image by Eoneren/Thinkstock]