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You are here: Home / Space / Tiangong-1 Crash: Should We Worry?
Tiangong-1 Crash Coming: Should You Be Worried?
Tiangong-1 Crash Coming: Should You Be Worried?
By Michael Slezak Like this on Facebook Tweet this Link thison Linkedin Link this on Google Plus
China's prototype space station, Tiangong-1 or "heavenly place," is falling to Earth and could re-enter the atmosphere as soon as this week.

While most of the eight-ton spacecraft is expected to burn up as it plummets through the atmosphere, there is a chance some of it will survive all the way down to the surface.

Should I Be Worried?

No. The chances of being hit by part of the space station are basically zero.

About 70% of the Earth is covered with water and most of the rest of it is sparsely populated. If any of the space station does reach the surface, it is incredibly unlikely it will hit any person, let alone you. In 1997, a woman was struck on the shoulder by an object, believed to be part of a Delta rocket. But she was not injured. She is thought to be the only person ever struck by spaceship debris.

In terms of size, Tiangong-1 is only the 50th largest spacecraft to come down, and there have been no recorded deaths or injuries from people being struck by debris from any of them. The largest uncontrolled entry was SkyLab, the 77-ton US space station, which disintegrated over Western Australia. It didn't injure anyone but large parts of it were later collected.

China has not released all the details about the design of Tiangong-1, so it is not possible to say how much of it will survive re-entry. In 2011 Nasa calculated the chance of a smaller 6.5-ton object striking someone was about one in 3,200. That means the chance it would hit any particular person -- you, for example -- is about one in 21 trillion. It is hard to imagine a more unlikely way to die.

Where Is It Most Likely To Crash?

It is orbiting at about 27,000km/h, so a crash site is virtually impossible to predict. If you get the entry time off by an hour, you’ve got the location off by at least 27,000km.

The satellite can only re-enter within the latitudes of its orbit -- 43° North and 43° South. That rules out a descent over the UK but it does cover much of the Earth, including vast stretches of North and South America, China, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, parts of Europe, and great swaths of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Because of its specific orbit, it is more likely to impact at the edges of that area -- near the southern or northern latitudes.

When Is It Going To Crash?

The current best prediction is 1 April (no, this is not an April Fool's joke).

But again, because of its speed, it could be at least a day either side of that.

Who Is Responsible for Any Damage?

According to Steven Freeland, dean of law at Western Sydney University, the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects states that the launching state is liable to pay for any damage caused. In this case, that means China.

That convention has only been invoked once before, when the Soviet Union's Cosmos 954 crashed in 1978. That was a nuclear-powered satellite and it showered nuclear waste over Canada. Canada billed the USSR C$6M and it [the USSR] eventually paid C$3M.

What Did Tiangong-1 Do When It Still Worked?

Tiangong-1 was China's first space station, and was described as a "potent political symbol" of China's growing power when it was launched in 2011 as part of an ambitious scientific push to become a space superpower.

It was launched unmanned but was designed to be habitable, to test docking with other craft, and to be used for conducting experiments. It was visited by astronauts, including China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012. "After carrying out her assigned medical experiments, she performed a Tai Chi routine designed specifically for space exercise," said Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist from Flinders University in Australia.

"The second expedition to the station in 2013 included Wang Yaping, the second Chinese woman to go to space. Her mission coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first woman in space, the USSR cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.”

© 2018 Guardian Web under contract with NewsEdge/Acquire Media. All rights reserved.

Image credit: ESA; Screenshot of Tiangong-1.

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