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Michigan preps for unlikely event of crashing space junk this weekend

Tiangong 1
Rockey Raybell
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Tiangong 1, the white streak pictured in the top right corner, is set to reenter Earth's atmosphere this weekend.

Michigan’s emergency operations center is being activated Thursday in preparation for this weekend’s expected crash landing of a Chinese space station.

It is highly unlikely that any part of the space station that survives the reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere will land in Michigan. But the Michigan state police is getting ready just in case.

“If we fail to prepare, we’re already preparing to fail. And that’s unacceptable. We have to have things in place,” says Capt. Chris Kelenske, deputy state director of emergency management and homeland security.

The European Space Agency predicts Tiangong 1 will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere sometime between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. China’s space agency says the window could extend to next Wednesday. 

Roughly half of the Earth’s surface is in the path of the errant space station. But authorities should be better able to predict where its debris, if any, will land a few hours before impact.

Launched in 2011, Tiangong 1 was China's first space station. The name translates as "Heavenly Palace." It was last used in 2013.  China’s space agency apparently lost control of the space station in 2016.

Experts say the spacecraft poses only a slight risk to people and property on the ground, since most of the 8 ton vehicle is expected to burn up on re-entry.   

Debris from falling satellites and other man-made space junk has been falling back to Earth for decades.   In 1979, NASA’s 77-ton Skylab crashed through the atmosphere, spreading pieces of wreckage near Perth, Australia.  

Only one person is known to have been hit by falling space debris. Lottie Williams was not injured by a falling piece of a Delta II rocket in Oklahoma in 1997.

A bigger problem than being struck by a falling piece of space junk is being exposed to hazardous materials, specifically hydrazine – a highly-toxic material used in rocket fuels.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
The Associated Press is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting.
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