Since March 2016, the roughly nine-ton Tiangong-1 space station has stumbled uncontrollably in Earth orbit. It will probably not completely burn up. Refrigerator-sized debris could hit southern Europe.
Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria or Greece may be hit in mid-March 2018 by rubble from the runaway Chinese space station “Tiangong-1”. This is shown by calculations by experts from the European Space Agency (Esa) and the California Aerospace Corporation.
The largest fragments could be the size of a refrigerator and hit at a speed of 400 kilometers per hour.
Due to the geometry of the orbit of “Tiangong-1” (Sky Palace), the Esa experts exclude that fragments of the space station will go further north than 43 degrees north or further south than 43 degrees south. Europe could therefore be affected only south of a line Bilbao, Marseille, Split.
An exact time of the reentry of the space station in the earth’s atmosphere can not yet be specified. Nor can the region be narrowed further – it can hit Europe, or Australia, Africa, or America. Theoretically, Manhattan could also be hit.
The dynamic processes of dropping the station are simply too complex to make more accurate forecasts. Even just before the event, only a rough temporal and geographical window can be estimated. In addition, the rubble will extend over a very large region – a strip that will be around 50 kilometers wide and up to 500 kilometers long.
Two tons of debris could reach the earth
The likelihood that people will be harmed by the crash of “Tiangong-1” is very low. It should be only one in a million. For one thing, it could be that the almost nine-tonne space station completely burned up when entering the earth’s atmosphere.
In the worst case, about two tons of material could reach the earth’s surface. Second, most of the potential crash sites are over the oceans, and third, the impact does not have to be on the mainland in a populated area.
But it is idle to speculate about it – man has no influence on what will happen in March. It comes as it comes, and then it has something fateful.
At more than 25,000 kilometers per hour
At the moment, the Chinese space station orbits at a height of well under 300 kilometers around the earth and has a line speed of more than 25,000 kilometers per hour. It is thus already at a height where molecules of the Earth’s atmosphere are located.
These cause friction, which slows down the space station more and more. It keeps on sinking, experiencing more and more friction and finally heats up. Smaller parts and superstructures will break off, as the glowing red station will shatter into many pieces, most of which will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere and fail to reach the ground.
When China brought its own space station into orbit for the first time in September 2011 with “Tiangong-1”, this was a space-sweeping bang. However, only twice has a team of three Taikonauten, as China called astronauts, visited the station.
Overall, Chinese astronauts spent just three and a half weeks on “Tiangong-1”. Already since 2013 she is orphaned. Most recently, the space station’s trajectory was raised in December 2015 by firing thrusters.
In March 2016, radio contact was lost. Since then, there is no way to somehow affect “Tiangong-1”. It was also clear that sooner or later the station would crash. This is inevitable according to the laws of physics. Once it falls below a height of 200 kilometers, only a few days will pass before the crash.
Too late for active euthanasia
Originally a controlled crash of “Tiangong-1” was planned. However, the Chinese had hesitated too long because they might first want to bring the next space station in the Earth orbit. “Tiangong-2” was launched on September 15, 2016. At that time, Tiangong-1 was late for active euthanasia.