By Aaron Kesel
The European Space Agency now predicts (as of April 1st) the toxic-filled Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will reenter the atmosphere sometime tonight during April Fools night (April 1st) or through early Monday morning, April 2nd. The agency estimates the location of impact will now be the East Coast of the U.S., although the precise location of impact is unknown.
In 2011, China launched a space station called Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) but lost control of it five years later due to an apparent technical malfunction that ended communication with the spacecraft.
According to Live Science, the space station named “Heavenly Palace” is the size of a bus and weighs approximately 8.5 tons. Ten to 40 percent of its mass is expected to breach the atmosphere and plunge to Earth.
If that wasn’t enough, the plunging lab may contain chemicals on board which experts have warned may be “very dangerous to humans.” Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) wrote:
Potentially, there may be a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine on board the spacecraft that could survive reentry. For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale vapors it may emit.
Hydrazine looks like water and is defined as a colorless, oily liquid or sometimes white crystalline compound (Hydrazine 2000; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2008; Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) 2005) according to Toxipedia.
A 2016 EPA warning states that exposure to hydrazine in the workplace may lead to symptoms of acute (short-term) exposure, and high levels of hydrazine may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edema, seizures, and coma in humans.
The report goes on to state:
Acute exposure can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system in humans. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. Effects to the lungs, liver, spleen, and thyroid have been reported in animals chronically (long-term) exposed to hydrazine via inhalation. Increased incidences of lung, nasal cavity, and liver tumors have been observed in rodents exposed to hydrazine. EPA has classified hydrazine as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen.
In an unrelated report last year, Iridium, a mobile satellite communication company, described the handling of the hydrazine chemical for fueling their own satellites which shows how dangerous the chemical is.
Hydrazine is always transported in a Department of Transportation approved tank called a DOT 110. These tanks are very robust, and must demonstrate that they will not rupture or leak in a variety of conditions and forces.
For Iridium NEXT, the hydrazine is shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where it is stored in an open-air fuel farm along with fuels for other missions. It is brought to the SpaceX Payload Processing Facility (PPF) days before fueling in order to stabilize to the ambient temperature.
Further noting that any essential staff were escorted out of Iridium prior to fueling the thrusters on the satellites.
Once we start moving the fuel from the DOT 110s to the satellites, all non-essential personnel are evacuated from the building and the operation is controlled from a building several hundred meters away. Personnel entering the PPF must wear Self Contained Atmospheric Protective Equipment (SCAPE). These suits are the same suits as used by Fire and Rescue departments everywhere. Breathing air is provided by hoses connected to a supply outside of the building.
This toxic space lab will break up in the atmosphere, with the debris crashing down to Earth. Some scientists predicts the chunks could sprinkle across as much as up to 1,000 miles.
The research stemmed from a paper titled “Impacts of orbital elements of space-based laser station on small-scale space debris removal.” As the name suggests, the scientists’ paper explores the impact of using a giant laser to blow apart space debris like the space station.
This paper investigated the impacts of orbital elements of space-based laser station on small-scale space debris removal by numerical simulation,” the researchers wrote in their abstract. “The orbital momentum models of small scale space debris and space-based laser station were established. The velocity variation of the space debris ablating by the space-based laser station was analyzed, and the orbit maneuver of the space debris irradiated by laser station was modeled and studied. The variations of orbital parameters of the space debris orbit respectively without and with irradiation of high-power pulsed laser were simulated and analyzed, and the impacts of the inclination and right ascension of ascending node (RAAN) of the space-based laser station on debris removal were analyzed and discussed.
Despite all this, Aerospace has assured the public that they are safe.
The location of contact is not fully able to be predicted as there are all sorts of outliers, but if the factors stay the same then the U.S. Northeast Coast is now the foretold point of impact. Scientists are now guesstimating where the satellite will hit; estimates include the northern United States, parts of Spain, Portugal, Greece, China, the Middle East and some other countries.
Update 8:30 p.m.: It is now being reported that the space station will renter the atmosphere above South America according to a YouTube channel set up to track the debris.
The ESA and other agencies have warned the public that the area where Tiangong-1 makes an impact should be avoided, just in case any toxic materials survive the fall in the wreckage. As Aerospace writes, “The world is watching as Chinese space station Tiangong-1 hurtles toward Earth and makes a fiery reentry.”
You can track the satellite reentry here at Space.com’s tracker [Track Tiangong-1! Use This Satellite Tracker]