This is no April Fool's joke.
The crash is imminent: The Chinese experimental space station Tiangong-1 will fall to Earth on Sunday (April 1), give or take a day and a half.
With a weight of 9.4 tons (8.5 metric tons) at launch, the craft will be one of the biggest chunks of space debris to re-enter the atmosphere. Does that mean you’re in danger of being struck?
In two words...Not really.
"The odds of being hit are very small," Marco Langbroek, a consultant with the Space Security Center of the Royal Dutch Air Force and Leiden Observatory, told Space.com. "We should not overdramatize the dangers," he said.
Image: Daily Mail
The risk is low for several reasons. First, although Tiangong-1 is about the size of a school bus, most of it will break apart and disintegrate as the friction of Earth’s atmosphere burns it up. The surviving bits will likely scatter along a path projected to be about 1,240 miles long by 43 miles wide (2,000 by 70 kilometers).
On a planet with a total surface area of about 197 million square miles (510 million square km), that’s a pretty small strip.
And that strip will probably fall on the ocean, which covers 70 percent of Earth's surface. Combine that with the fact that most people live clumped together in cities, and the chances of getting whacked on the noggin from a falling piece of space debris are less than 1 in 1 trillion.
There are no guarantees, of course. In January 1997, Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was struck in the shoulder by a hand-sized piece of space junk, later determined to have come from a Delta II rocket. She was not hurt. And at least 166 pieces of space junk have been recovered over the last 55 years.
Image: Daily Star
Tiangong-1's orbit dictates that it will come down somewhere between 43 degrees north latitude and 43 degrees south latitude — a huge portion of the globe that harbors most of the world's population. But that's about as specific as researchers can get right now, and perhaps that lack of details is why people are feeling skittish.
The real danger may not lie in people being struck by the debris, but rather in curious people inspecting it, said Langbroek. Chunks of Tiangong-1 that survive re-entry may harbor hydrazine, a toxic and corrosive rocket fuel.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that any hydrazine would most likely leak out and burn up high in the atmosphere. "But just to be cautious, don’t handle the debris, keep people perhaps 100 yards away from it, and report it to local emergency services," he said.