It sounds scary as hell. The Chinese satellite Tiangong-1, launched in 2011, is plummeting toward Earth in an uncontrolled descent. Originally slated for a controlled crash into the ocean using thrusters, that plan has gone astray. At some point in 2016, a malfunction stopped China from being able to communicate with the spacecraft. (As the New York Times wrote about the vagueness of the situation, "The Chinese have not been very forthcoming about that.")
But real life isn't Armageddon, and this isn't as frightening as it sounds. The space station has been slowly falling for two years. It's reaching the end of that fall now. Yet, there is still a lot of mystery about how this is going to occur because it's an out-of-control space station.
Fortunately, there's little reason for concern. Experts have been refuting claims that there's reason to panic. Here's everything you need to know about the situation with Tiangong-1.
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When and where will the satellite land?
Most of the satellite will break apart and burn up on reentry. What does make it to the ground will be scattered, so experts aren't able to say it's going to land in any one particular place. It's expected to land somewhere north of southern Australia and south of the northern United States. That's a huge range, but that is what's known.
No one knows exactly when or where the space station will deorbit. Most of it is going to burn up, but some larger chunks are expected to make their way down to the planet's surface. However, with the satellite orbiting the Earth 16 times per day, it's nearly impossible to say where the landing will occur more than a day in advance. Even then experts say the projected landing area will be large.
The landing is expected to come soon. It's projected for sometime between March 31 and April 2. However, the European Space Agency (ESA) has called that window "highly variable."
Is the space station going to hit someone?
Despite some sensational claims, the short answer is it's wildly unlikely. Remember, most of the planet is covered with water and not people taking a leisurely stroll down the sidewalk with their dog. Additionally, Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell has pointed out that this isn't even an especially large spacecraft.
In fact, Tiangong-1 isn't even the largest satellite to make an uncontrolled descent. Skylab, the US's first space station, crashed in Western Australia without injuring anyone in 1979. NASA’s 12-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite had an uncontrolled descent in 2011 and landed safely in the Pacific Ocean.
Tiangong is an eight-ton craft, about ten times smaller than Skylab.
It's very unlikely you're going to be hit by a piece of the satellite. "The personal probability of being hit by a piece of debris from the Tiangong-1 is actually 10 million times smaller than the yearly chance of being hit by lightning," the ESA said in a statement. The odds of a piece hitting you are less than one in a trillion. You're far more likely to win the lottery.
"It’s really very, very, very tiny odds," Andrew Abraham, an analyst at the Aerospace Corporation, told the New York Times. "I certainly would worry about things like crossing the street far more than debris from Tiangong."
There's not much to worry about with the pending descent of Tiangong, even though it may sound like the kind of thing that requires the services of space cowboys like Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck.
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