Recently, a news article talked about China’s “Failed” Space Station (Tiangong-1) re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. There are several aspects of this that are interesting:
- China launched a Space Station! That is sort of cool and crazy. The article calls it a “failed” space station, but really, it was just about as successful as any country’s first space station. Really, only three countries have launched space stations, besides the International Space Station: Russia, USA, and now China. All of them had problems with their first stations. But, this post isn’t about space stations. I will write about those some other time!
- The space station is going to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, as most objects in low Earth orbit do.
- Researchers don’t know exactly when it will re-enter the atmosphere. They gave an estimate of around April 2nd, with a two-week window size. It seems like this is a really large window size.
- The article discusses that the space station could land in the United States! Should you run for the hills and hide for the entire two-week period that it could re-enter the atmosphere?
First, let’s talk about how many objects there are in low Earth orbit. There are a LOT – about 22,000 that are larger than a softball. There are even more that are smaller than this size, but we don’t really have the ability to track those objects. Very few of these objects are operational satellites, like less than 1,000. You can find the most objects at an altitude around 700 km. We put a lot of satellites in this range for pretty much the same reason that you find a lot of stuff there – the atmosphere above about 700 km is super weak, so that the drag is extremely low. Objects at 700 km altitude will take well over 50 years to be pulled back down into the atmosphere. This means that anything put up there will stay for a really long time.
Objects below about 500 km altitude will re-enter the atmosphere within about 10 years. Anything put there or lower is just sort of swept into the atmosphere relatively quickly. This is why there is not much stuff at these altitudes – it all re-enters the atmosphere.
About one object re-enters the atmosphere every day. Most of these objects are really small and burn up completely. Others are very big and make it through the re-entry process and land on Earth. Things like first and second stages of rockets are examples of relatively large objects that don’t always burn up in the atmosphere.
The Department of Defense (DoD) tracks all of these objects, and attempts to predict exactly when and where they will enter the atmosphere. This is really difficult to do. First, the orientation of the objects are not really well known, and they could be tumbling. Therefore, it is really hard to predict the area that they are presenting to the incoming air, so the drag is difficult to calculate. Also, the objects may have lots of protrusions, like antennas and solar panels. If the satellite is tumbling, the area could change dramatically. Or, if there is enough force to rip the panels off, then the area could change quite suddenly and stay at a lower value. Think about driving a minivan down the road with a mattress strapped onto the top. The minivan feels a lot of drag while the mattress is attached, but suddenly feels quite unburdened when the mattress flies off onto the cars behind it. The same happens when satellites or space stations are unburdened of their solar panels as they enter the atmosphere. Just like a minivan with a mattress strapped onto the top, it is difficult to predict if and when this unburdening event may happen, so determining the exact drag for the last few weeks of the object’s life is quite difficult.
Another thing that adds to the difficulty of predicting the drag is that there are a lot of aspects of the atmosphere between about 100 and 150 km that we don’t really understand that well. For example, in this region, the temperature goes from being the coldest part of the atmosphere (about -75°C at 100 km) to the hottest part of the atmosphere (about +700°C at about 200 km). That exact transition is not well understood. Part of the reason is that it is impossible for a satellite to survive there and take measurements. It is also impossible for an airplane to fly there, or a balloon to ascend to there. Really, the only way to take measurements is either with rockets (so about 10-20 measurements a year at most), or through remote sensing, which has a lot of assumptions.
One of the great ironies in NASA is that when the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) was going to re-enter the atmosphere, NASA researchers also had a window of a couple of weeks. One would think that given the name of the satellite, we would be able to specify the atmosphere well enough to predict when it was going to de-orbit! But, not so much. It is a hard problem! Another interesting thing about UARS is that it actually re-entered the atmosphere over the United States! UARS was about the size of a school bus, so a lot of pieces may not have burned up in the atmosphere and may have made it all the way to the ground. No one was hurt.
NASA has come computers codes that you can run that will predict what will make it to the ground. You actually have to runs these codes before you can get permission to launch a satellite. Most stuff like aluminum and plastics burn up, but things like tungsten and other really dense metals may not. You can then predict how fast the objects will hit the ground by estimating the surface area and mass, and predicting the terminal velocity.
Given how much stuff has re-entered the atmosphere, why has no one ever died due to getting hit my something? Well, the surface of the Earth is really, really large. One website estimated that the percentage of area that we humans have covered with artificial surfaces is about 0.6%. That is not much. If the objects were falling randomly over the Earth, then one might expect about 2 objects a year to re-enter the atmosphere over a populated area. Since the vast majority of objects burn up in the atmosphere, there is not too much to worry about.
There have been objects like meteors that have recently entered the atmosphere over populated areas. For example, on January 16, 2018, a meteor landed just north of the University of Michigan. This meteor was large enough to cause a huge boom and could be seen by thousands of people. Still, no one was hurt. Even in a relatively dense population center, there is a lot of empty land.
So, there is not very much chance that when the Chinese Space Station re-enters the atmosphere and some of the bits make it back to Earth, they will land on anyone or cause much damage. Most likely the pieces will land in the ocean or over land where there are not too many humans. But, I guess there is always a first time.