After much fanfare, the rogue Chinese space station Tiangong-1 finally plunged through Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over the southern Pacific Ocean at 8:16 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. It burst into flames and tiny pieces as it made its long-anticipated descent, the Joint Force Space Component Command said in a news release posted on Twitter.
It was an anticlimactic finale, as space agencies had warned of the falling space debris — about the size of a school bus — since China lost contact with it in September 2016. The element of suspense heightened in recent weeks, as international space officials maintained that there was no way to know exactly where Tiangong-1 might strike, even as it hurtled closer and closer to Earth.
The attention paid to Tiangong-1, China’s first space station in orbit, was largely because of its size — 19,000 pounds — and the nature of its uncontrolled descent, which isn’t supposed to happen, as The Washington Post reported.
In the grand scheme of space debris, however, Tiangong, which means “Heavenly Palace,” won’t even crack the Top 10 of largest objects to reenter the atmosphere. Nor did it light up the sky for all to see, relegating it to a footnote in the world of space junk spectacles.
The reentry of space debris into Earth’s atmosphere is a phenomenon that occurs dozens or even hundreds of times each year, according to data from Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies. There were just under 200 such events in 2017. Yet because most of the re-entries play out as Tiangong-1 and may involve much smaller pieces, only a select few events have caused a stir over the last few decades.
In one of the more notable events, a woman was struck by a piece of space debris in Oklahoma in 1997 — the only known person in history to hold that distinction, according to Aerospace. The odds of it happening are infinitesimal, about 1 in 1 trillion, less than winning the Powerball jackpot and far less than being struck by lightning, according to Aerospace.
But one January morning, about 3:30 a.m., Lottie Williams was walking in a Tulsa park with her friends when they saw what looked like a fireball falling out of the sky, as she recounted to Fox News in 2011. Then, she felt a tap on her shoulder. A charred, lightweight fragment of the U.S. Delta II booster had landed on her, so lightly that it didn’t injure her. At first, she had thought it was a fragment of a shooting star.
“The weight was comparable to an empty soda can,” she told Fox News. “It looked like a piece of fabric except when you tap it, it sounded metallic.”
Larger pieces from that same reentry, including a fuel tank, landed in Seguin, Tex., and Georgetown, Tex. — right in a farmer’s front yard.
The largest reentries ever recorded were the 286,000-pound Russian space station Mir in 2001, captured by CNN, and NASA’s 154,000-pound Skylab, in 1979. America’s first orbital space station ended up raining space junk all over Australia as it descended into pieces, prompting an apology from President Jimmy Carter. As a joke, a Western Australia park service official even fined NASA $400 for littering when officials visited Australia to survey the debris in desert areas, a NASA public affairs officer recounted in a 1979 Johnson Space Center newsletter.
In more recent years, a man hiking in northwest Colorado, near the Wyoming border, heard a strange sound and, a few minutes later, found an unusual object — a 30-inch sphere, still warm — resting in a freshly made crater about a foot deep. “When I walked up to it, I knew it had come from space,” he told Colorado Public Radio. “There was a little crater, and this thing was sitting in there, and I looked down at it and looked up and thought, this thing fell from the sky.”
He called NORAD, which told him to call the local sheriff. Eventually, it landed in the hands of NASA, which finally identified it: The object was a spherical titanium tank from a Russian upper-stage rocket, launched in January 2011.
Such discoveries are likely to continue as Earth’s orbit becomes more crowded with junk, much of it belonging to derelict satellites or rocket fragments that may have exploded or collided with other debris. According to the European Space Agency, over the past 60 years, more than 5,250 launches have resulted in about 42,000 tracked objects, the ones that measure a few inches. A total of 170 million fragments, including all the tinier pieces, are orbiting around Earth, according to ESA.
As The Washington Post’s Rick Noack reported recently, the increase in space debris is steadily turning Earth’s orbit into a hazardous wasteland, posing risks to both manned or unmanned vessels trying to navigate a potentially rocky path out of orbit. It’s a problem that space agencies across the globe are only beginning to work toward solving.
Gen. William Shelton, a commander with the U.S. Air Force Space Command, predicted in 2011 that Earth’s orbit “may be a pretty tough neighborhood … in the not-too-distant future.”
So while few may have witnessed the fiery fall of the Tiangong-1 from space, surely, it won’t be the last opportunity.
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