Plummeting Chinese space station not likely to hit Netherlands

Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is about to crash, sometime between Friday and Monday, experts expect. Where the space station will re-enter earth's atmosphere, and whether any debris will actually reach the earth, is still unclear. But it is very unlikely that the Netherlands will be hit, Stijn Lemmens of the European Space Agency (ESA) said to broadcaster NOS.

"In any case, physics is in Europe's favor", Lemmens, who is in charge of monitoring space debris for the ESA, said to the broadcaster. According to the agency, North and South America, Africa, Australia and South Asia are in the danger zone. "Then there is an area of about 1,000 kilometers by dozens of kilometers wide where the space debris may fall."

The Netherlands will be "completely spared", Lemmens emphasized. The country is far outside the impact zone. "And these kinds of space objects are anyway not built to survive re-entering the atmosphere." Most, if not all, of the space station will burn up in the atmosphere.

Tiangong-1 is China's first space station. It was launched to orbit around the earth in 2011. It weighs around 8.5 tons and is about the size of a school bus. Tiangong-1 was initially intended to be operational for two years, but the mission kept being renewed. According to ESA, China lost control of the space station in 2016. According to Reuters, earlier this year the Chinese still claimed that Tiangong-1 was under complete control.

On Monday Chinese scientists came to the conclusion that Tiangong-1 will soon hit the earth's atmosphere and meet its demise.

According to Lemmens, on average a satellite or component of around 100 kilograms re-enters earth's atmosphere once every two weeks. The largest object ever to plummet back to earth was Russian space station Mir, which weighed more than 120 tons. It crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2001. 

There is no reason to worry, Lemmens stressed. "Suppose you take all the fragments that normally come down in a year", he said to NOS. "The chance that someone is hit by a piece of space debris is then still a million times smaller than the chance that you will be struck by lightning."