Columns

2018.03.21 Expecting a Chinese guest?

By DAVID GREEN

It will soon be time for a visit with the Heavenly Palace. A stranger from east, the far east, is coming our way.

It’s easy to find news reports about China’s Tiangong-1 space station, translated as Heavenly Palace, but there’s one report that prompted Scott Porterfield from Sylvania to send a link my way:

“A crippled, out-of-control Chinese space station containing ‘highly toxic’ chemicals is falling back to Earth and may strike lower Michigan. The country’s first prototype station is expected to strike the Earth around April 3.”

Even Snopes, the arbiter of fake vs. real news, says it’s going to happen. Now isn’t that something to look forward to…. Snopes does add that it’s nothing to worry about.

China launched its mini-space station in 2011. The 19,000 pound model was designed for use as a test platform for a future full-size station. Two space crews have spent time in the Palace.

Then things turned sour. The Chinese government announced in 2016 that it was no longer able to communicate with Tiangong-1. There wasn’t much more said, but other researchers have concluded that the China National Space Administration has no way to control when and where it would land.

Initial estimates put the crash at mid-March, plus or minus two weeks, but Scott sent the report calling for April 3. I suppose April 1 might be a better day for it to happen.

The craft is expected to burn up when it reënters the atmosphere, but due to its size, some pieces could survive and strike the earth. Is that what they mean by nothing to worry about? What if the space station’s toilet comes hurtling onto Morenci or Fayette?

The odds of being hit, they say, are one in a million times smaller than that of winning the Powerball jackpot. Sure, but don’t forget, someone always does win the lottery eventually.

Russia crashed a 265,000 pound space station into the Pacific Ocean in 2001. That was a better move than NASA’s first SkyLab (165,000 pounds) that crashed into rural Australia in 1979—from a mostly uncontrolled orbit.

Here are the facts to comfort you: Throughout the history of spaceflight, an estimated 11.9 million pounds of debris “are thought to have survived reëntry, with no reported casualties.” No one has ever been harmed, and only one person–a woman in Oklahoma—was brushed on the shoulder by debris but was unharmed.

And a little less comforting: “There's a good chance that gear and hardware left on board could survive intact all the way to the ground, aerospace engineer Bill Ailor told Business Insider.

For example, after NASA’s Columbia space shuttle broke up, a working flight computer was located. More good news: International space law covers compensation for damage. Someone in China will send a check, however, I’m certain you won’t get to keep the computer that just crashed through your roof.

It wouldn’t be an exciting story if nothing were said other than the fact that it will fall somewhere around the world and that no one will be injured. That’s why “experts” report that anywhere between 10 and 40 percent will survive reëntry and strike the ground, and southern Michigan is prime territory—as is New Zealand.

Heavenly Palace was 218 miles above Earth in May 2017. Falling 525 feet a day, the altitude dropped to 155 miles late last month. Getting closer and closer to burn-up day.

But will burn-up day really fall on April 3? No, no, no, that’s a Tuesday, our deadline day. We won’t have time for space debris on a Tuesday. If it falls here, you know it’s going to be five minutes after deadline and we’ll miss the coverage.

A flashy Chinese space toilet stuck in the asphalt at Main and North, and it will be old news a week later.