Disembodied pieces of China’s Tiangong-1 space station could be plummeting to Earth in a blaze of glory any time during the next few days. While it’s unlikely something really strange will crash at your feet and even more unlikely that you will get hit by a flying piece of space junk (as in, you have a better chance of winning the Powerball), what do you do if you actually find a piece of this thing?
You can tweet it, you can Instagram it, you can share it on Facebook, but don’t touch it.
Space stations are loaded with chemicals you’d rather not want interacting with your skin, as LiveScience found out. Tiangong-1 is oozing with the toxic and highly reactive hydrazine that is often found in rocket fuel. Whatever doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere will probably be doused in this corrosive substance, which at best will make your eyes water and give you a rash. It can also trigger burns, headaches, nausea, dizziness, seizures or pulmonary edema and even plunge you into a coma. It has also proven to be carcinogenic after extended exposure. Hydrazine doesn’t need to radiate an eerie green glow to tell you it isn’t for any sort of human consumption.
Say you could touch hydrazine without any horrible side effects. You still wouldn’t want to keep a piece of Tiangong-1 as a souvenir, because it could land you in a legal black hole.
"According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a country’s spacecraft is their legal property until they say that it’s not their legal property,” space historian and collectSPACE.com editor Robert Z. Pearlman told LiveScience. "No matter where it lands — whether it lands in the ocean and sinks to the bottom of the sea, or whether it lands on their own land or some other country’s land — it belongs to that country of origin."
The Outer Space Treaty is what holds China liable in the 1 in 292 trillion case a chunk of its dead space station makes a dent in you or your property. It also means you will be guilty of stealing government property if you decide to make it a trophy. Perlman warned that no one is exempt, even if they were somehow involved in the mission. Take a member of the Coast Guard working on the Challenger investigation back in 1986. He got away with keeping a fragment of the fallen spaceship in his personal stash for 25 years — until he put it up on eBay as “the ultimate Christmas gift” and ended up handcuffed after NASA found out. The penalty for that could be $10,000 and a decade in prison. He was lucky he got off with two years probation.
Also, “the ultimate Christmas gift.” How insensitive can you get?
If you’d rather not risk serious illness or legal repercussions, just take a picture with your smartphone really fast and then use it to contact the authorities.