There’s a rogue space station coming right at us, but don’t panic

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Oct 18, 2017

So a rocket is going to be falling out of the sky and plummeting right to Earth, but you have a much better chance of being thrown from a roller coaster or killed by a falling coconut than getting hit by random space debris.

Don’t believe it? Chances that you, and you in particular, will get smashed by space debris (or even tapped by it like one startled Oklahoma resident in 1996) are one in several trillion. Chances that any one person on Earth will get hit are one in 3,200, and it probably won’t be you.

This isn’t even close to an Armageddon-level occurrence. When the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 lost control and de-orbited last year, meaning it’s been running rogue in space since June 2016, scientists didn’t exactly go into doomsday mode. If the Harvard astronomer who accurately predicted when the spacecraft would de-orbit isn’t panicking, neither should should let you sleep at night. If you’re still thinking McDowell’s reaction is delusional (and no one would blame you), consider that more massive things than Tiangong-1 have crashed to Earth in the past without flattening anyone. Mir, Skylab and Russia’s multiple Salyut stations were all rebels that de-orbited and reverse-rocketed through the atmosphere. The 200,000 pound Skylab was dismembered all over the Australian outback. 143-ton Mir plunged into a watery grave in some remote area of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, a controlled descent that allows engineers to manipulate the craft so it self-immolates over an uninhabited stretch of land would probably cause the fewest overall cases of insomnia, but odds are that Tiangong-1 will go the way of Mir. There’s a high probability anything that just falls out of nowhere will end up sleeping with the fishes when you live on a planet that is 71% water. If the remnants of the space station that don’t burn up in the atmosphere come hurtling towards the other 29%, only a tenth of that is actually inhabited by humans.  

Tiangong-1 is also an Instagram-worthy photo op if you can see it at night.


The fireball will also look pretty awesome when it descends, according to the Aerospace Corporation—it will streak across the sky in a death blaze kind of like this:

Just don’t touch anything if you experience that one in something-trillion chance of it falling at your feet. It may be covered in hydrazine, which is insanely corrosive. Don’t breathe near it either, because it could be emitting toxic vapors. A disembodied piece of rocket is definitely not something you want to be showing off as a trophy, even if it did come from outer space.

By the way, that same “victim” who was tapped on the shoulder by a completely random piece of scorched metal was disappointed that it wasn’t something celestial and just a piece of space junk.