A Chinese space lab falling from the heavens is nothing to fret over.
Remember when we fretted about space junk from Skylab raining from the sky? Well, spacecraft flotsam is all set for a return engagement. Only this time, blame the Chinese.
Chinese officials acknowledge that they have lost control over their first space laboratory, a 34-foot, 9-ton craft that's now orbiting the earth 200 miles overhead. Scientists expect the lab, Tiangong-1, to plummet to Earth sometime in late 2017. Much of it will burn up in the atmosphere's upper strata, but larger pieces, jagged shards weighing more than 200 pounds, could survive re-entry. Exactly when this volley from the heavens will happen, and where, no one knows.
So, will Earth's inhabitants again find themselves nervously craning necks upward now and then, watching for hunks of fiery steel? Not us.
We've always been a nation of worriers. And we've always had something seemingly cataclysmic to stoke our anxieties: killer bees in the '70s, mad cow disease in the '90s, Y2K chaos at the turn of the century.
Skylab exposed our preoccupation with one of our most innate worries: something big and heavy conking our heads. As the day of landfall grew closer (July 11, 1979) scientists regularly put out forecasts on what swath of territory was in peril. The Justice Department set aside two lawyers who were prepared to jet to any spot on the planet to size up whatever damage Skylab inflicted. Maryland and Virginia's emergency preparedness officials worked up Skylab disaster plans. Washington, D.C., set up a command center.
The people with the right preparedness plan were the ones who had none at all.
Instead of running for cover, they riffed. One company sold paper Skylab helmets at $2 a pop. There were T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, "Skylab missed me." Stores sold Skylab Repellent and Skylab Impact Balm. People threw Skylab crash parties and painted huge bull's-eyes on their streets.
Where did Skylab finally land? A bit of it plopped into the Indian Ocean, but most of the wreckage fell onto a deserted stretch of Australia, where the population density was less than one person per square kilometer. No one got clobbered. Buildings and cars suffered nary a dent.
Space junk falls all the time, without any consequence. The European Space Agency estimates that there are 170 million pieces of man-made space debris a millimeter or larger orbiting the Earth, and 29,000 pieces 10 centimeters or larger. Bit by bit, that stuff falls, quietly and harmlessly.
The odds of a human getting struck by a piece of the Tiangong-1 or any other space debris are about 1 in 3,200, according to space.com. What are the odds that you will be that person? One in several trillion.
So the Chinese shouldn't necessarily wring hands over the possibility of hunks of cosmic trash felling bystanders out for their morning jogs. Losing a grip on their first space laboratory is a bit embarrassing, but overall their space program has made considerable headway since its inception in the early 1990s. China launched its first astronaut in 2003, and in 2013 it put a rover on the moon.
If nothing else, they can take solace in the meager price the U.S. was asked to pay for Skylab's fall from the sky.
The Australian town that Skylab shards fell near slapped a $400 fine on the U.S. for littering. If Tiangong falls somewhere between Bangor and Fresno, we can send the summons to the Communist Party's Central Committee in Beijing.
— The Chicago Tribune