You know the saying, "what goes up must come down?" It's of course based on gravity, inasmuch that without the ability to fly, anything that heads up toward the sky will eventually come back to Earth.
Even with that, humanity has done a pretty good job of getting things into the air, with most of them not coming down when and where we want them to. That is not always the case, though, and when it comes to China's Tiangong-1 space station, it is quite the opposite.
Launched in 2011, China lost control of Tiangong-1 sometime in 2016. China was reluctant to talk about its fate for a while, but last year admitted it would crash down sometime between late 2017 and early 2018.
Don't worry about looking up
The Aerospace Corporation has calculated that Tiangong-1 should be back sometime around April 3, give or take a week. That prediction assumes there will be no thrusting during re-entry.
While the idea of a space station that is 34-feet long, 11-feet wide and weighs nearly 19,000 pounds dropping back to earth sounds dangerous to people on the ground -- especially since it is carrying a toxic substance known as hydrazine -- the truth is you have little to be concerned about.
Aerospace predicts most of the space station will break apart and disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere, and what little does survive re-entry will fall within a region that is just a few hundred kilometers in size. That area would also be along the space station's path, meaning the odds of any pieces coming your way are very, very slim.
This map shows the space station's expected path, with the yellow lines representing the most likely areas to be hit and the blue areas being absolutely safe.
Even if you are in one of the areas covered by a yellow stripe, you will not need to wear a helmet on the day the station comes crashing down. Turns out the odds of getting struck by debris are about 1 million times worse than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.
In other words, you are significantly more likely to become obscenely wealthy than be the landing pad for pieces of a space station. Without running the numbers, it's probably safe to say there's even less of a chance of you winning the Powerball and then, while on the way to collect, having Tiangong-1 debris land on you.
So you can take some solace in that, as well as the fact that in the entire history of spaceflight, no one has ever been killed by space debris coming back down to Earth. There was one instance of a person being hit by some debris, but she was not injured.
Some details on Tiangong-1
Tiangong-1 was the first space station ever built and launched by China, and it was designed to be a manned lab and experiment/demonstration area for a larger, multiple-module Tiangong space station. It is made up of two modules, one of which is a habitable module and the other is for resources.
The station has room for two sleep stations, with a habitable volume of just 15 cubic meters. The first Chinese orbital docking between the station and an unmanned Shenzhou craft occurred in November 2011, and two manned missions to the station were completed, with the first coming in June 2012 and the last in June 2013.
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