China has finally confirmed suspicions that their Tiangong-1 Space Station will fall from orbit at some point in 2017. The lack of any specific date, location or other normative information about how, where and why the space station will return to Earth or whether any parts are expected to reach the ground or even where any reentry might occur further reinforces the rumors that there is a problem with the station and the Chinese no longer are controlling its movements. The rumors started when the station was recently decommissioned and the Chinese astronauts were returned home early without any replacements being sent to the station. This had initiated the belief that the Chinese space station was damaged in some way but the fact that they are unsure as to where, when and not controlling how the rather large satellite space station would be reentering the atmosphere and whether the entire station will burn up in the atmosphere does present at least a small threat of landing on land and potential for it striking a populated area. Perhaps it is going to pay, well, at least give some a chance at immortality should they find themselves underneath the falling remnants of the Tiangong-1 Space Station.
The Chinese have been utilizing the Tiangong-1 Space Station for approximately the last five years. The similarities between the United States Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong-1 Space Station are startling. Skylab remained in orbit for six years and the Chinese Tiangong-1 Space Station is predicted to make it approximately five years. Both stations were deserted and left lifeless at the mercy of nature simply waiting for gravity to work its unavoidable result. It remains to be seen if the crash of the Chinese Tiangong-1 Space Station will strike an inhabited area, the center of one of the Earth’s oceans or what we usually describe as the middle of nowhere. Skylab caused minimal damage falling in one of those middle of nowheres, namely the Australian Outback and the oceans around Australia and northward into the Pacific Ocean. For now we can only guess as to where Tiangong-1 Space Station will come to Earth. One thing which we need to remember is that Skylab was an early space station made from a part of a Saturn-V rocket booster modified with floor platforms built inside (see montage below). Skylab was never planned on being a permanent station and in consideration of costs there were no thrust boosters which had the power to allow for making a planned reentry. There were orientation thrusters which could have reduced the station speed bringing it to earth faster, but that would have probably led to larger pieces reaching the ground. Modern satellites are required to have a reentry system and a plan for bringing it down over water and choosing an angle of entry which will allow for the maximum amount of the orbiter to burn up in the atmosphere. Yes, ending a satellites life is rocket science. What one wonders is why they do not use the Hollywood method for satellite removal and fire the rockets sending the satellite either into the sun or out towards Jupiter or simply out of the solar system. Perhaps the out of the solar system would need to understand the gravity of such a solution while aiming for the sun or Jupiter is using the gravity of the situation.
There should not be any great fears as over two thirds of the planet is covered with water and large areas of the land are sparsely populated. For those who live in large cities and have been convinced by the eco-fanatics that there are no open areas left on the Earth may we suggest you search for pictures of the steppes in Russia, anywhere in northern Africa and the Sahara Desert or the great plains of the United States, particularly in Nebraska or any of the numerous rain forests anywhere from Washington state to the Amazon. When the United States lost control of their primitive space station Skylab on July 11, 1979, and the seventy-seven ton orbiter rained down on the Thornton farm and house in the Australian Outback, another place of sparse population; that, it turns out, was very fortunate as there was one large section which did reach the ground largely intact, the station’s oxygen tank as well as there were numerous smaller pieces including a smaller oxygen tank, a set of nitrogen tanks which powered the attitude thrusters, a refrigeration unit, and a structural ring from the outer hatch piece which is labeled “Airlock/Danger.”
Skylab is one of the few NASA satellites which had pieces strike the Earth which they made little effort to claim and collect the debris. There was a $400.00 littering fine assessed by the town of Esperance, Australia submitted to NASA which was never paid; but there was also a $10,000.00 reward to be awarded to the first person to turn in a piece of the satellite at the offices of the San Francisco Examiner provided it was done within seventy-two hours (three days) from the reentry of Skylab which was awarded to seventeen year old Stan Thorton from Esperance. Hopefully the paper made a large deal as they probably doubted anybody in Australia would have heard of the offer, let alone fly to San Francisco to claim the prize. Hopefully Stan had a nice vacation in San Francisco paid for in mid trip by the San Francisco Examiner. Must have been nice and well-played Mr. Thorton.
The Russians also has their own space station named Mir. Mir was launched in two stages on February 20, 1986 and April 23, 1996. It finally crashed to the Earth on March 23, 2001. Mir was brought back under a controlled system of three steps using a booster attached to the station. The explanation can be read here. Today we have the International Space Station (ISS) which was a collaborative effort of the European Space Agency, Russia’s Roscosmos, Canadian Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (see symbols below). The ISS is presumed to be a long term station expected to serve on into the future and has been slowly added to over the years. How long it remains of use will depend upon planning with a mix of luck as a disastrous collision with any of the following: space debris, meteor, asteroid, comet or other natural space projectile; would be a disaster. The ISS has been an extravagantly expensive project and the cost was the likely reason we did not start building the double wheel luxurious space station like the one seen at the beginning of the movie “2001.” Perhaps some day such a station will be built and it will likely say Sheraton Space Hotel at the docking station. We may as well face it that private monies will be what conquers space and initially only the wealthy will be able to afford space vacations and the rest of us will have to find employment to get into space, and the work will be as dangerous as it will be strenuous. Much of this future will not be happening in most of our lifetimes unless the miracles expected in biology in the coming near term are true and readily accessible to the average person. Otherwise we can only dream of our exciting vacation on one of the moons of Saturn.
The ISS has delivered some exciting discoveries, most intentional and some simple accidents happened upon through the actions of everyday life aboard the station. One example of an inadvertent discovery has been told of when astronaut Donald R. Pettit mixed salt, sugar, and coffee grounds in an inflated plastic bag and the different small pieces clumped rather than simply floating independently proving the theory of accretion as a vital and necessary stage for planetary formation. The discovery resulted from Pettit playing around on a Saturday morning only to have Stanley G. Love, whose training in planetary science involved asteroids and collisions, working spacecraft communications in Mission Control in Houston, Texas, who immediately realized the implications of this simplistic, gee-whiz demonstration. “Don!” Love exclaimed, “Do you realize you’ve just solved the middle stage of planetary accretion?”
Beyond the Cusp