Tiangong-1: Chinese Space Station Is About to Come Crashing Down to Earth, But Don’t Panic

A rogue Chinese space station is hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth. The Tiangong-1 station has been making headlines since China ceased communications with the spacecraft back in 2016. With re-entry predicted just a few weeks from now, should we be worried?

Probably not, is the short answer.

The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research and development company, predicts the chance of being hit by a piece of falling Tiangong-1 debris is about a million times smaller than winning the lottery. And that’s if you’re in the most likely region that parts of Tiangong-1 will land.

3_7_Tiangong-1 The Long March II-F rocket carrying China’s Tiangong-1 lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province, China, on September 29, 2011. China’s rogue space station is hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth. But getting hit by Tiangong-1 debris is about a million times less likely than winning the lottery. Petar Kudjundzic/Reuters

Big Planet, Small Station

In 2001, the 140-ton Russian Mir space station fell through the skies above Fiji, its charred remains landing in the South Pacific Ocean. The re-entry harmed no one.

Like the Russian station, much of Tiangong-1 will burn up in the atmosphere, reports Chinese news agency Xinhua. At just 9 tons, the spacecraft is far smaller than Mir. 

Some parts of the station may survive the fall, however. Wired reports that pieces as heavy as 100 kilograms (220 pounds) might make it down to the ground.

These might seem big, but even large chunks of the craft will pale in comparison to the size of the Earth’s surface. According to a map produced by the Aerospace Corporation, re-entry could occur across about two-thirds of the planet’s surface, in line with the spacecraft’s flight path.

The zone of greatest risk cuts right through the heart of mainland U.S. from Northern California and Oregon all the way to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

But even in this higher-risk region, the chance of being hit by debris is about a million times smaller than the chance of winning the Powerball jackpot, the Aerospace Corporation reports.

Because most of Earth’s surface is covered by water—including the regions most likely to be hit by falling debris—and because vast swaths of land are uninhabited or barely inhabited, the likelihood of a person being hit by falling space debris of any kind is tiny, Wired reports.

A Dubious Jackpot

Lottie Williams from Tulsa, Oklahoma, has the dubious honor of being the only known person ever hit by a piece of space junk. In 1997, she was struck by a piece of charred mesh believed to have come from a returning Delta II rocket. Luckily the mesh was not heavy and just tapped her shoulder, leaving her unharmed but incredibly surprised.

If you’re still not conviced you'll be safe, you have about three weeks to take cover. Tiangong-1 is due to re-enter some time between March 29 and April 9, ESA reports.

While it probably won’t be dangerous, the re-entry should be spectacular. A team from NASA and other space organizations filmed the Japanese Hayabusa’s 2010 reentry over central Australia. They captured, exploding streaks of light like shooting stars over the skies from NASA’s DC-8 airborne laboratory.

Watch the footage here: