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Chinese space junk is falling to earth, here’s why you probably don’t need to duck

by Felix Omondi

The thought of a machine made of metals, falling from space a couple of hundreds of miles per seconds sounds scary and should send you running for shelter. Well, China’s first space lab is retiring and is fast falling towards earth.

Though the lab could have been sent to space from China when it comes to falling down and possibly crashing a person on earth, it can fall anywhere; not just in Chinese territories. Before you fret, chances are very slim that the space junk will fall on you; they are astronomically small.

According to the California-based nonprofit, Aerospace Corporation, the Tiangong-1 will enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime in mid-March. The ‘Heavenly Palace’ as it is known, was sent up into space in 2011 and has enabled the Chinese space mission to achieve various milestones. It facilitated the trip by the first Chinese woman – Liu Yang – into space; she was on the team that saw the first manual docking with the lab.

The Heavenly Palace was designed to stay in space for two years, but it was extended later after the authorities felt the needed to conduct more experiments. In Sept 2016, China’s Manned Space Engineering Office (CMS) officially announced that Tiangong-1 will be decommissioned and will fall to earth sometime in the latter half of 2017. That said, it is now safe to assume the lab has fallen into an uncontrollable orbit; satellite trackers report says the lab has been in uncontrollable orbit since June 2016.

Will it hit someone or something once it falls to Earth?

CMS says a good part of the lab will burn out during the fall. The organization further says it is tracking the lab and will issue out updated reports to all stakeholders across the globe. Just in case things don’t ‘burn out’ as anticipated, and people down to earth need to find shelter from a hot-ball of burning lab.

Based on the projection of the lab fall, it is expected to fall somewhere between the latitudes of 43o N and 43o S, and area that is primarily occupied by ocean water. Although during its entry into the earth, it will fly over U.S., Brazil, and China.

The Tiangong-1 weights 8,500 kg (18,739 lbs), and it is by far not the biggest human-made object to fall to earth. Early in 2013, Russia’s Mir space station weighing some 120,000 kg fell back to earth and made a landing in New Zealand.

However, the Mir was still under control when it fell to earth; it is best practice to have them under control when falling. It helps in ensuring little (to no) debris from the object will make it to earth, as the goal is to have the entire of it burn in the atmosphere. However, there is always the remote chance that some small debris will actually touch the ground, and someone might pick it up when it is cool enough. There lies the danger of a person touching highly corrosive substance on the surface of the unburned debris.

The only person known to have been hit by a falling object from space was Lottie Williams back in 1997. She was taking a stroll through a park in Tulsa when a piece of light metal about 6 inches (15.2 cm) grazed her shoulder.

NASA later confirmed the object was falling space junk based on the time and the location they projected it would fall. The main wreckage of the Delta rocket was found a couple of hundred miles away in Texas. Williams is the only person known to have ever been hit by junk from space.

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