In its report, Aerospace warned that there was “a chance that a small amount of debris” from the module will penetrate the atmosphere and hit the Earth’s surface.
“If this should happen, any surviving debris would fall within a region that is a few hundred kilometers in size,” noted the United States-funded research and development center.
It further noted the danger of a highly toxic and corrosive fuel called hydrazine on board which the space station could be bringing down with it.
By Aerospace’s estimates, the module could land somewhere between 43° north and 43° south latitudes. It highlighted a slightly higher chance of the station’s debris reaching northern China, the Middle East, central Italy, northern Spain and the northern states of the US, New Zealand, Tasmania, parts of South America and southern Africa.
Aerospace, however, pointed out that the chance of debris hitting anyone living in these areas are extremely low.
“When considering the worst-case location … the probability that a specific person will be struck by Tiangong-1 debris is about one million times smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot. In the history of spaceflight, no known person has ever been harmed by re-entering space debris. Only one person has ever been recorded as being hit by a piece of space debris and, fortunately, she was not injured.”
Despite the tiny possibility of a person being hit by space debris, Harvard University astrophysicist and space industry enthusiast Jonathan McDowell still advised close monitoring on the station’s impending crash.
“Every couple of years something like this happens, but Tiangong-1 is big and dense so we need to keep an eye on it,” he was quoted as saying.
Tiangong-1, which used to be falling to Earth at the speed of about 1.5 km per week in October, is now dropping at the rate of 6 km a week.
“I would guess that a few pieces will survive re-entry. But we will only know where they are going to land after after the fact,” McDowell cautioned.
Meanwhile, government-run media in China has denied reports that the module is out of control.
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation space lab engineer Zhu Congpeng said the country is continuously monitoring its movement which is they expect to come down safely in the first half of the year, according to People’s Daily.
He explained that the station will burn up upon its re-entry in the atmosphere, with its remaining wreckage landing in designated waters and posing no threat to anyone.
Described as a “potent political symbol” of the Chinese government, China National Space Administration launched Tiangong-1, also dubbed as the Heavenly Palace lab, back in 2011 as part of its bid to become a space superpower. It would soon be utilized by the country for both manned and unmanned missions.