An out-of-control Chinese space station full of "highly toxic" chemicals may crash into lower Michigan, reports Aerospace.org, which has predicted an April 3 reentry with a margin of error of one week before and after. While the list of possible targets include locations in Northern China, South America, Southern Africa, Northern Spain and the United States. Lower Michigan in particular is among the regions with the highest probability of a direct hit.
The 8.5-ton Tiangong-1 had previously been expected to come crashing down to Earth sometime in March, while the European Space Agency's Space Debris Office in Darmstadt, Germany, thinks the window for reentry is between March 24 and April 19. That said, most of it will burn up upon re-entry, leaving between 10 and 40 percent of the satellite expected to survive as debris.
"There is a chance that a small amount of Tiangong-1 debris may survive reentry and impact the ground," Aerospace reports. "Should this happen, any surviving debris would fall within a region that is a few hundred kilometers in size and centered along a point on the Earth that the station passes over."
In January, Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said that it's impossible to predict where the station will hit. “You really can’t steer these things," McDowell said, adding "Even a couple of days before it reenters we probably won’t know better than six or seven hours, plus or minus, when it’s going to come down.
McDowell said Tiangong-1’s descent had been speeding up in recent months and it was now falling by about 6km a week, compared with 1.5km in October. It was difficult to predict when the module might land because its speed was affected by the constantly changing “weather” in space, he said.
“It is only in the final week or so that we are going to be able to start speaking about it with more confidence,” he said.
“I would guess that a few pieces will survive re-entry. But we will only know where they are going to land after the fact.” -The Guardian
According to a FAQ on the Tiangong-1, the actual impact of the space station might not even be the most dangerous aspect of the reentry. Potentially hazardous materials including hydrazine, a highly toxic chemical used in rocket fuel, might survive re-entry. If humans or animals come into contact with large quantities of the substance, it can cause serious liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.
As we previously reported, the Tiangong-1 was the first space station built and launched by China - equipped with two sleep stations and a habitable volume of 15 cubic meters (529 sq ft.).
Weighing in at 18,750 lbs, the two-module spacecraft - which means "Heavenly Palace," lost contact with China's space agency on March 21, 2016 after the completion of its extended mission, which included a six year service life that saw two manned missions to perform experiments for the larger multiple-module Tiangong station.
The first mission - Shenzhou 9, was a 13-day sojourn launched June 15, 2012 with three astronauts - including China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang. The mission completed two dockings - one computer controlled, and one crew-guided.
China's second mission, the Shenzhou 10, launched June 11, 2013 with three astronauts as well.