Reports are suggesting that China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory is mere months away from crashing back down to Earth. While this will likely pose little danger to humans, a space expert believes that the crash-landing will represent a big setback to China’s space program, which has been on the rise for the past several years.
Tiangong-1 was launched in September 2011, with its name translating to “heavenly place” in English, as noted in a report from the Verge. Weighing in at close to 19,000 pounds, about 10 to 40 percent of the spacecraft is expected to plummet down to Earth toward the end of March. Although there is only a small chance that humans may be affected by the crash-landing, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told CNN said that the event will mark a “PR embarrassment” for China’s otherwise burgeoning space program.
“The actual danger is small, but it is accepted international best practice nowadays that objects that big shouldn’t be able to fall out of the sky in this manner.”
The chances of debris from Tiangong-1 hitting a human are actually very slim if space experts are to be believed. According to CNN, there is only a one-in-1 trillion chance of pieces of the Chinese space station hitting a human, which, to put things in context, is similar to the one-in-1.4 million odds that lightning would strike the average person in the U.S. Instead, McDowell believes that the most likely scenario would see Tiangong-1 burn up once it enters Earth’s atmosphere, with some of its parts hitting the sea floor.
“The worst realistic case is that the Tiangong-1 reenters over a highly populated area, and a few largest chunks hit the ground, with perhaps some minor property damage,” McDowell commented.
“But this has never happened in the 60-year history of reentering space debris. The chances are small.”
The expected late March crash-landing will come about two years after Tiangong-1 had stopped functioning, CNN further noted. In a letter sent to the United Nations in May 2016, the Chinese Space Agency did not provide any specific reason why the space station ceased to function more than four years after it was first launched. University of Central Florida professor Roger Handberg told CNN that the laboratory might have run out of fuel, but other than that, the exact factors that caused Tiangong-1 to go offline remain unknown.
According to the Verge, Tiangong-1 was not built to last beyond 2013 but nonetheless remained in space for the next few years, just as Chinese officials had previously requested. And while it may be re-entering our planet less than three months from now, the publication added that the space station’s crash-landing won’t be the first time a spacecraft of similar size or larger would be making an uncontrolled reentry. In 2012, Russia’s 30,000-pound Phobos-Grunt spacecraft made a similar crash-landing, but did so incident-free, as it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Decades prior to that, NASA’s Skylab space station, which weighed about 160,000 pounds when it crash-landed, also reentered Earth without any complications.
As another reassuring sign for anyone concerned about Tiangong-1’s crash-landing, only one person in history has been hit by space debris. In 2009, Wired wrote about Oklahoma woman Lottie Williams, who was hit in 1997 by a six-inch piece of metal from the reentering Delta rocket. As the debris was quite light and most likely reentered at a low speed, Williams was uninjured following the “glancing blow” from the stray fragment.