Earthlings have experienced quite a few close calls from space rocks in the recent past, but now they have something else to worry about.
China lost control of its 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 space station sometime last year, and officials warned that it will hurtle back to Earth and make an uncontrolled descent through our planet’s atmosphere. Unfortunately, no one knows precisely when or where Tiangong-1 will land.
Image Credit: CMSA
China launched Tiangong-1 in 2011 in an attempt to become a space superpower like the United States and Russia. It formerly operated at an altitude of ~230 miles above the Earth’s surface but has recently dipped below 186 miles, highlighting how the hunk of junk is slowly de-orbiting.
Officials familiar with the matter estimate that Tiangong-1 will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere between October 2017 and April 2018, giving everyone just a few months’ notice. Still, there’s so much uncertainty surrounding the situation that people around the globe are worried about their safety – and justifiably so.
But fear not; the Earth is more than two-thirds water, and its land masses are so large and unoccupied that the chance of Tiangong-1 fragments landing in your neighborhood is incredibly slim. More massive objects have de-orbited the Earth before, and mostly burned up in the atmosphere; that said, we expect Tiangong-1 will do the same.
In the chance that smaller fragments of Tiangong-1 survive the fall, they're most likely to land somewhere in the ocean or on an empty piece of land.
Still worried? Well, NASA’s Mark Matney once estimated that the chance of a human getting struck by a piece of space junk is almost 1 in 3,200. More specifically, the likelihood that you, out of everyone else, would get hit by space junk is nearly 1 in several trillion.
Experts won’t know exactly where the space land will land until just the right moment when it dips low enough in altitude that the Earth’s atmosphere clutches it, so it remains a waiting game as of right now.
While the ideal situation would have been a controlled landing, these kinds of risks are always present when we send large objects into space. All we can do is hope that advancements in technology will prevent nations from losing control of space stations in the future.