We survived the September 23rd apocalypse. In fact, if you’re reading this, it means we’ve survived EVERY apocalyptic prediction. So those who are warning us about the upcoming crash of an abandoned Chinese space station aren’t predicting the end of the world – even though the ‘thing’ about to plunge back to Earth is eerily named “Heavenly Palace” -- but they actually have scientific evidence tat it will indeed happen and it ‘could’ cause some problems. Who is going to need to duck ... and when?
Tiangong-1 or "Heavenly Palace 1" is an 8.5 ton prototype space station – China’s first – that was launched unmanned on September 29, 2011. It has been visited by both unmanned and manned missions but has never functioned as an operational space station like the International Space Station, Skylab or Mir. Its mission was scheduled to end in 2014 but was extended for two years until March 21, 2016, when the Space Engineering Office officially announced its termination. A few months later, after amateur astronomers noticed it was acting erratically, Chinese officials confirmed that the Heavenly Palace was leaving the heavens at some point but they didn’t know when because the telemetry link with it was lost. Uh-oh.
At that time, the estimated time of departure from the heavens was between October 2017 and April 2018. Now, Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell has revised and narrowed the window. In an interview with The Guardian, he said this:
“Now that [its] perigee is below 300 kilometers [186 miles] and it is in denser atmosphere, the rate of decay is getting higher, I expect it will come down a few months from now—late 2017 or early 2018.”
That’s a little better, but how about something more specific, like who should duck and when? Unfortunately, neither McDowell nor Chinese space officials can get any more accurate that “soon.” Even worse, they expect some of the pieces of Tiangong-1 – which was small in comparison to 77.5 ton Skylab – to be up to 100 kg (220 pounds), which could cause some serious damage if they make it through Earth’s atmosphere and crash in a populated area.
“You really can’t steer these things. Even a couple of days before it re-enters we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down. Not knowing when it’s going to come down translates as not knowing where it’s going to come down.”
Is McDowell an astronomer or a politician? China doesn’t have to take responsibility as long as it informs the United Nations “Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space” when the Heavenly Palace is being demolished (hopefully) by the atmospheric wrecking crew, which may not get the pieces small enough for safety.
Well, at least there’s the comfort in knowing that over 3/4 of the planet is water, right? Leave it to McDowell – and climate change – to ruin that little bit of hope. McDowell noted that even a slight change in atmospheric conditions could translate into Tiangong-1 skipping from a predicted continent to another one.
With this lack of accurate information, it looks like everyone needs to be ready at a moment's notice to perform a Peking duck. (You knew there would be a Peking duck joke eventually).