Tiangong-1 is China’s first space station. Launched in 2011, it was originally planned for a controlled crash on Earth in 2013, but its mission was extended to 2016 when eventually telemetry was cut. That year amateur astronomers began to speculate that the Chinese had lost control of the station. China eventually acknowledged this, announcing that the station would re-enter the atmosphere “in the latter half of 2017.”
If that sounds a little speculative to you, that’s because it is.
And therein lies the problem: The Chinese currently have no control of a 8.5-ton object moving at 20,000 miles per hour that is going to break up into pieces and crash into unknown spots on this planet.
This sort of thing has happened before. Infamously, radioactive fragments from Russian nuclear satellite Kosmos 954 crashed in northern Canada in 1978. A year later, large pieces from America’s first space station, Skylab, peppered the Australian Outback with shrapnel, with a few larger pieces leaving scorched craters.
The same thing is likely to happen with Tiangong-1, Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist, told The Guardian: “Yes there’s a chance it will do damage, it might take out someone’s car, there will be a rain of a few pieces of metal, it might go through someone’s roof, like if a flap fell off a plane, but it is not widespread damage.”
Of course, it’s impossible to really know how dangerous Tiangong-1 could be. At the time of Skylab’s crash, NASA calculated a one in 152 chance that some part of the station would hit a person. How do you fancy those odds?
One thing is certain: Danger of death by satellite will increase as more are launched. As more nations put larger structures into orbit, the danger they pose when they crash will increase. We need to get used to the idea of things raining down on us from space.
On its face, this might seem callous. But our everyday lives are fraught with technological dangers, and we readily accept them as a necessary price for the conveniences of modern living. People die as a result of planes, trains, and cars every day. Do you worry about killing someone when you get into your car? It’s a very real possibility. The odds of being injured in a car crash are about one in 135, and about 40,000 Americans die from car crashes every year. Do you always try to reduce this danger? Do you always drive the speed limit, or do you sometimes go a bit over?
The technological, economic, and political importance of space stations and space travel is becoming increasingly apparent. We already enjoy the benefits of GPS and worldwide communication. Will we ever be able to accept that satellites may cause unnecessary deaths? We need to find an answer to this question before large satellites become regular inhabitants of the Earth’s orbit.
Leon Vanstone is a researcher at the University of Texas and science communicator in Austin.