Gravity is Out of Date

Update: 13:30CST

It’s baaaack.  The Tiangong-1 crashed into the South Pacific somewhere northwest of Tahiti at 8:16PM EDT.

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For those who have seen the movie ‘Gravity’, you know that the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 plays a major role.  It is, in fact, the ‘lifeboat’ that saves Sandra Bullock’s character.  The only problem? That scenario is no longer possible: the Tiangong-1 will plummet to Earth over the next 12-24 hours.  The Chinese lost communication with the Tiangong-1 in 2016 but it has taken a couple years for them to pinpoint the time of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere; unfortunately, however, no one has yet been able to predict exactly where it will impact, even at the eleventh hour.  What we do know is that only about 10% of the space station will be able to survive the intense heat of re-entry, so what was initially about the size of a school bus will be reduced by roughly 90%.  The potential impact zone, however, is very large, from latitude 43 degrees north to 43 degrees south, a swath of Earth that encompasses most of the Americas – from just south of Canada to just south of Buenos Aires, from Rome to Cape Town, South Africa, from China to south of Australia.  Statistically speaking, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be struck by debris, and more likely than not the station will crash into water, but there is always a chance, and don’t be surprised to see air traffic control shut down air traffic for a time should better estimates of impact areas not be available in the last few hours before re-entry.  Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, even the slightest miscalculation could mean estimates of the impact area could be off by hundreds of miles.

The Tiangong-1 was launched into space in 2011 and saw two different crews man the station over its short life.

So, should the U.S. suddenly resurrect the Space Shuttle program and run into problems in space, there won’t be any ‘fire extinguisher as a thrust module’ for getting a Sandra Bullock space castaway to the Tiangong-1 for a rescue.  I’m sure NASA is losing sleep…

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Kevin Banks

Geopolitical analyst with extensive background in languages and information technology.

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