Tiangong-1 was China’s first manned space station, and it’s been a success. It was operational two years longer than planned, hosted three missions, and operated unmanned for the past three years. Unfortunately, its career may end with a literal bang, as it’s currently unresponsive and will make an uncontrolled return to Earth next year. Uh oh.
That claim is according to China’s space agency, and I do love how they refer to its uncontrolled re-entry as something that happens “naturally,” like they made a deliberate, locally-grown, eco-friendly, farm-to-orbit choice to do it this way.
Normally, large spacecraft like space stations that are destined to burn up in the atmosphere are guided so they land in the Spaceship Cemetery, a huge chunk of uninhabited Pacific Ocean. To do any sort of guided re-entry, though, you need to have some control over the spacecraft, which China has not had since earlier this year, when they lost communication with the craft for some still undetermined reason.
Tiangong-1 is about 34 feet long and close to 18,000 pounds—a lot of material to come back to Earth, but not huge when compared to other space stations. It’s about half the size of the Soviets’ first station, Salyut 1, and I personally think of the Tiangong-1 more as a long-term test of an orbital resupply ship like the Russian Progress than as a full-fledged space station.
Whatever you think of it, though, it’s coming back home in the second half of next year, and the best guesses as to exactly where the burned chunks of it will rain down are pretty broad areas. For example, one expert tweeted this:
Saying that it could come down between latitude 43N and 43S is basically saying it could come down on all of South America, Africa, and big chunks of Asia, Europe, and North America.
That sounds bad, but, really, there’s not much cause to worry. Even if the heat-resistant and dense parts make it through the atmosphere, the chances of a piece hitting you is really, really low. Most of the planet’s surface is water, and the chances of getting hit by anything from space are really, really low.
When the first American space station, Skylab, made its uncontrolled re-entry, it did so over the South Pacific and Australia. People found parts of the station, and there was some minor property damage, but nobody was hurt. Skylab was also much, much bigger than Tiangong-1.
So, yes, the space station is going to careen wildly out of orbit and come shooting through the atmosphere in a dramatic fireball. That all sounds exciting, but you’re probably putting yourself in far more danger when you drive on your midnight burrito run.
So don’t worry. But maybe wear a hat.