A defunct Chinese space station is expected to plunge to Earth from its orbital perch in late March.
The Tiangong-1 station will mostly burn up as it plummets through Earth’s atmosphere. Some fragments could survive the fiery reentry, but experts say the risk to humans on the ground is small.
“I personally wouldn’t be fearful at all about being struck by space debris,” said Dr. Andrew Abraham, a senior member of the technical staff at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research organization based in El Segundo, California, that has been modeling the 18,000-pound station’s reentry path.
An Aerospace analysis found that “the risk that an individual will be hit and injured by a piece of debris is estimated to be less than one in a one trillion.”
“It’s much more common to be hit by lightning,” said Dr. William Ailor, principal engineer for the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at Aerospace.
But figuring out exactly where debris from Tiagong-1 could end up is no small task.
“It’s challenging to predict the time of reentry, and even more challenging to get the location,” Abraham said. “One thing we do know is that [Tiangong-1] will reenter between 43 degrees North and 43 degrees South latitude, but beyond that we don’t know the precise location.”