The tail end of 2017 was packed with interesting asteroid sightings and near-misses that gave skywatchers a reason to look up, but the biggest threat from above in 2018 might be manmade. China’s Tiangong-1 space station has been completely out of control for months now, and space agencies from all over the world are expecting it to come crashing down to Earth in early 2018. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly when or where the massive hunk of space junk will land.
Tiangong-1 — which means “Heavenly Palace” — hosted a number of Chinese astronauts during its brief life span, but after its extended mission ended in 2016 the Chinese space agency revealed that it had lost communication with the spacecraft and that its decaying orbit would eventually result in it plummeting to Earth. That’s not great news.
Tiangong-1 is Scientists who have been monitoring the space station’s troubled existence have been attempting to forecast where it might slam into our planet but have only been able to narrow it down to an area between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south. Most of that area is covered by ocean, but there’s still around a 1 in 10,000 chance that the debris lands on a populated area, potentially injuring people or damaging structures.
The space station weighs 18,740 pounds, and while much of the material that makes up the craft will burn up in the friction of Earth’s atmosphere, thousands of pounds of debris is expected to survive reentry. With no way to control where or when the Chinese vehicle reenters, it’s impossible to predict the exact location where all that debris will land.
According to a FAQ about the Tiangong-1, the actual impact of the debris might not even be the most dangerous part about its tumble towards Earth. Potentially hazardous materials including hydrazine, a highly toxic chemical used in rocket fuel, might survive reentry. If any humans or animals come into contact with the substance, it would be very bad news.
The spacecraft is expected to finally fall to Earth sometime in March, though observers have only been able to narrow its date of descent down to a two-week window, which isn’t particularly reassuring. When it eventually does begin to fall, scientists will have precious little time to predict the area of impact, but you can be sure that every space agency on the planet will be monitoring it closely.