China’s space agency expects Tiangong-1, its out-of-control space station, to crash to Earth some time between now and April 2018.
Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace” lab was launched in 2011 and described in a report by The Guardian as a “potent political symbol” of China, part of an ambitious scientific push to turn China into a space superpower. It was used for manned and unmanned missions. Also, China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, visited the space station in 2012.
Last year, after months of speculation, the Chinese government confirmed it had lost control of the 8.5-metric ton space station and warned that it would plunge to Earth in 2017 or 2018.
What will happen?
“Based on our calculation and analysis, most parts of the space lab will burn up during falling,” a spokesperson for China’s space agency told Fox News.
However, large chunks of metal could still fall to Earth and injure or kill anyone standing on the impact site, according to Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard University astrophysicist.
“There will be lumps of about 100 [kilograms] or so, still enough to give you a nasty wallop if it hit you,” McDowell told The Guardian, last year. “Yes, there’s a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone’s car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone’s roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage.”
Will we know when it’s getting ready to hit?
“You really can’t steer these things,” McDowell said in 2016. “Even a couple of days before it re-enters, we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down. Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down.”
Has this ever happened before?
Yes. In 1991, the Soviet Union’s 20-metric ton Salyut 7 space station crashed to Earth while still docked to another 20-metric ton spacecraft called Cosmos 1686. They broke up over Argentina, scattering debris over the town of Capitán Bermúdez, according to The Guardian.
Also, NASA’s enormous 77-metric ton Skylab space station came hurtling to Earth in an almost completely uncontrolled descent in 1979, with some large pieces landing outside Perth in Western Australia.
Has anyone ever been injured?
No. The Guardian reported that larger spacecraft than Tiangong-1 have made uncontrolled re-entries and there have been no reported injuries to people.
Should we be worried?
Nope. You can’t change anything by worrying, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Besides, the chances of being injured by falling debris are considered remote, but China told the United Nations “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” in May that it would carefully monitor the craft’s descent and inform the U.N. when it begins its final plunge.