The Tiangong-1, China’s first unmanned space station, is set to crash to Earth in March of this year. The fragments may carry hydrazine, a chemical known to be toxic.
Tiangong-1 is won't be coming back in one piece. [Image by CMSE]
Tiangong-1, a name that translates to “Heavenly Palace 1”, was launched in 2011 as part of China’s ambitions to establish itself as a space power and install a permanent space station by 2023. It helped carry out docking and orbit experiments, and was expected to be decommissioned in 2013. However, Chinese authorities have extended Tiangong-1’s tenure in orbit. China announced in the past that Tiangong-1 would re-enter the atmosphere in late 2017, prompting suspicions that the country may have lost control of its own space lab.
The China National Space Administration reportedly lost contact with Tiangong-1 back in 2016. Scientists began monitoring its orbit by then, figuring out when and where the space lab will crash back to Earth. Thus, if Tiangong-1 is about to crash, are we in any danger?
Illustration of Shenzhou 9 docking with Tiangong-1 [Image by Keith McNeill/Space Models Photography]
Though it’s suspected that China has lost control of Tiangong-1, there have also been reports that authorities purposefully delayed the space lab’s re-entry in September 2017 to make sure that it will end up in the Pacific Ocean. Ensuring that the craft lands in the ocean means that it will not be a safety or environmental threat. After all, debris from other space stations have also ended up in the same area.
Thus, Zhu Congpeng of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation denied reports that Tiangong-1 is out of control. “We have been continuously monitoring Tiangong-1 and expect to allow it to fall within the first half of this year,” Zhu told China’s state-backed Science and Technology Daily newspaper. “It will burn up on entering the atmosphere and the remaining wreckage will fall into a designated area of the sea, without endangering the surface.”
One cause for concern, however, is the fact that Tiangong-1 is possibly carrying the chemical hydrazine, which at times functions as a propellant. According to space research organization Aerospace, hydrazine is toxic and corrosive, and could survive its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. However, it still remains to be seen how much, if any, of the hydrazine will make it. Still, researchers say that hydrazine contamination is unlikely.
China has already launched Tiangong-2 [Photo by China Daily CDIC/Reuters]
As a matter of probability, it seems unlikely that the hydrazine will cause problems. For one thing, its chances of re-entering the atmosphere aren’t that high. For another thing, it’s likely that whatever hydrazine that does survive will end up in the ocean, far away from people that might come into contact with it. It’s also unlikely that a person will encounter a piece of debris from Tiangong-1, much less a piece of debris contaminated with hydrazine. Aerospace states that “the probability that a specific person (i.e., you) will be struck by Tiangong-1 debris is one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.”
However, if you do indeed happen to come across bits of what look like metal that came hurtling through the atmosphere from space, it’s best to keep your eyes off of it.
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