The Chinese government recently announced that its first space station, Tiangong-1 (天宫一号 “Heavenly Palace 1”), is on a decaying orbit and unresponsive to remote command. Last manned in June 2013, the space station is on a course to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime next year (the U.N. estimates no later than April of 2018).
Tiangong-1 masses a little over 9 tons (approximately the same weight as 10 original VW Bugs) and measures a little over 34 feet long (about the length of two and a half VW Bugs laid end-to-end). This is far smaller than either the 70’s-era Skylab (94.5 VW Bugs in mass, 6.2 VW Bugs long) or the modern International Space Station (513 VW Bugs in mass, 26.7 VW Bugs wide). Like any other object reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, most of it will burn to ashes in the heat of reentry; only certain components can withstand the heat and stress of slamming into Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds exceeding 17,000 miles per hour. However, some pieces of it may survive and make landfall somewhere; it’s too early to tell exactly where.
This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Objects in low earth orbit will suffer orbital decay over time unless they periodically burn fuel to regain speed; when the fuel is close to running out, there is little option but to attempt a controlled reentry. Usually, the nation operating the space station aims for an ocean to minimize risk to human life and property, as with several of the Russian Salyut (Салют, “Salute”) and Mir (Мир, “Peace” or “Earth”) space stations. NASA de-orbited its Skylab space station in 1979, aiming for the Indian Ocean, but overshot its target and scattered debris over several hundred miles in the Australian outback east of Perth. Those are just space stations – satellites or their components – sometimes crash into the Earth as well, such as Kosmos 954 (Космос, “Cosmos”) which scattered a bit more than 100 pounds of uranium-235 over the Canadian Northwest Territories.
The 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects establishes that damage caused by falling satellites or other spacecraft is the responsibility of the controlling nation. China and the United States are among those countries which have ratified the Convention. So hypothetically, if a piece of Tiangong-1 lands on your driveway and destroys your car, the Chinese government is “absolutely obligated to compensate for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the earth”, per Article II of the Convention (and per Articles IX-X, you’ll want to present your claim within 1 year of the incident through the U.S. State Department).
The Convention has been invoked before, though the language of “absolute obligation” appears to be a bit flexible. Canada sent the Soviet Union a bill for $6,041,174.70 for the cleanup following the crash of Kosmos 954; the Soviet Union paid $3,000,000. In the case of Skylab, the Australian Shire of Esperance issued a ticket NASA for $400 for littering; it is unclear whether they properly invoked Article II of the Convention, but NASA did not pay the ticket. Radio show host Scott Barley of Highway Radio collected $400 from his listeners to pay the fine on behalf of NASA in April 2009; thankfully, the Shire appears to have waived any late fees on the ticket.
It is too soon to tell where any pieces of Tiangong-1 will impact; the Earth’s surface is more than two-thirds water, but the station’s 43-degree orbital inclination means that it passes over the most densely-inhabited parts of the planet, including the United States. If you want to track the projected course of the station, you can use SatFlare or keep an eye on space-related news outlets.
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