No reason for N.H. to fear falling Chinese space station

Monitor staff
Published: 3/27/2018 12:11:39 PM

As people wait for an out-of-control Chinese space station to fall to earth, New Hampshire can rest easy: We are too far north for it to hit us, although we have the smallest of safety margins.

The relatively small space station Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011, but China lost control of it in 2016. Since then, it has been slowly sinking, and it is expected to enter the atmosphere around April 1 and plunge to Earth. Much of it will burn up, but portions of the craft may survive the trip down.

In its orbit around the planet, the space station does not go farther north than 42.7 degrees, almost exactly the latitude of the state border between New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This means if any pieces of the space station survive the plummet through the atmosphere and make it our way, debris would be more probable to fall on, say, Lowell, Mass., than Nashua.

Realistically, nobody is likely to see any part of the station make it to the ground – partly because most of the planet’s surface is ocean, so any pieces would probably fall in the sea, and partly because most of it is likely to be destroyed en route.

Tiangong-1 (the name means “heavenly palace”) is not even the largest craft to fall from low-Earth orbit. It’s 34 feet long by 11 feet wide, or about the size of a school bus, and weighs 9 tons.

At 85 tons, Skylab was almost 10 times as large. That space station burned up over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia in 1979, although a few big chunks survived the fall, and the Australian town of Esperance sued NASA for $400 for littering.

In February 1991, the Soviet Union’s 22-ton Salyut 7 orbital outpost came down while connected to another 22-ton spacecraft. The Soviet-Russian space station Mir was even larger, at 140 tons, but its March 2001 destruction was a controlled re-entry, deliberately aimed to fall into the ocean.

The satellite-tracking website Satview has a special page keeping track of Tiangong-1 at satview.org/?sat_id=37820U.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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