2/7/18: TIANGONG-1



Yesterday was the launch of yet another rocket into space courtesy of Tesla founder Elon Musk. People gathered at Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket. While the new rockets are always fascinating to watch – this time the rocket’s payload was just as intriguing.

Musk launched his own Red Tesla Roadster convertible into space.

Musk’s Roadster and its mannequin “driver,” dubbed “Starman,” launched into space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, as a “mass simulator” aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight. The launch was a huge success, Musk said, leaving only the fate of SpaceX’s Starman and the Roadster up in the air.

Musk said that he was hoping that the red car would make it to the red planet and as it went into space – arms extended from the car had cameras monitoring the movements of the astronaut mannequin in space.

The act was reminiscent of a scene from the animated classic ‘Heavy Metal’ where, in the opening sequence, a space shuttle drops its payload into space. The payload is a classic corvette convertible with and astronaut at the wheel.

Believe it or not the Roadster with Starman at the wheel survived through Van Allen Belts without incident and is now flying in a long, elliptical orbit around the sun. At its farthest point, that orbit extends nearly 243 million miles.

For reference, Mars orbits the sun at an average distance of 142 million miles. At their closest point to the sun, Starman and the Roadster will fly just inside Earth’s orbit, according to the diagram.

He may be in for some terrible terrain, as instead of a clear road to mars he may be hit by asteroids that could flatten the car.

Unsuspecting skywatchers in the Western U.S. caught a glimpse of the rocket’s second stage firing up one last time – and what they were really seeing was Starman blasting into space.

Shortly after the second stage initiated this burn, people in the western U.S. began reporting rocket sightings in the evening sky. While SpaceX has not officially confirmed that the images or videos on social media were of the Falcon Heavy, it was the only rocket scheduled to be flying over the Earth at that time and place, so it seems highly unlikely these spectators saw anything else.

I have not seen in my lifetime anything as cool as an astronaut flying through space in a red car giving us a close glimpse of planet Earth. The cameras are still working on the car giving us a great view from thousands of miles up.

I also thought that it is too bad that David Bowie wasn’t alive to watch this, after all ‘Space Oddity’ is supposedly playing on a loop in the car .

It is just too funny.

There were however a few people unaware just how far the car was in space who were worried that it would be forced into orbital decay and eventually burn up in the earth’s atmosphere just like all the other space junk out there that makes to earth eventually.

Since 1958 there have been some 3750 space launches resulting in nearly 8,000 objects larger than 10cm in orbit around the Earth.

Only about 30 percent of these objects are telecommunications or other satellites; the rest are spent rocket stages, mission-related objects and debris from the 129 spacecraft which have broken up in orbit. 80 percent of the satellites no longer function, because they have run out of fuel or failed.

Increasing space activity leads some to expect the risk from re-entering spacecraft to increase, in fact it is increasing exponentially as we are seeing more space activity where cargo and satellites are being sent up into space in order to observe possible nuclear launches and monitor weather patterns.

The exact ‘risk’ is, however, impossible to quantify. I am sure that many people are unaware that tracking errant space objects are tricky and that space agencies are able to give more than a year’s notice of re-entry risk. Current techniques can predict the trajectory and impact of a ‘landing site’ a little more than a day in advance.

This doesn’t mean that the technique is foolproof and it doesn’t mean that a piece of some satellite or space station doesn’t find its way to earth and causes damage.

Approximately 100 large, manmade objects reenter the Earth’s atmosphere randomly every year. Reentry heating and loads disintegrate each object into a number of fragments that are spread over a long, narrow footprint.

Random re-entry of space debris can threaten commercial spacecraft.

In 1996, a commercial aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing after the exterior glass of the cockpit window was cracked by an unidentified flying object. The object collided with the Boeing 757 – a 200 passenger plane on December 19 on a flight from Beijing to Wuhan, China.

Pilots radioed the airport saying that a shiny metallic object was hurling head on into the plane and pilots were bracing for a midair collision. The shiny object that fractured the windshield of the Boeing jet could have been a bit of debris that survived reentry of a spacecraft or launch stage. Fortunately, this accident occurred in a location where an airport was available for an emergency landing and not over a broad ocean area. It is evident that events of this type—high-altitude strikes on aircraft by unknown objects—are not uncommon, given the fact that there are approximately 70 reentries per year of objects over 800 kg worldwide and that from 10 to 40 percent of the mass of each object is expected to survive the event and fall through the airspace, the probability of an aircraft strike is not zero.

On the afternoon of January 27, residents of Acre in northwestern Brazil saw a bright object streak across the sky in broad daylight (6:30 p.m. local time). Many captured the object on video, but no one reported getting any kind of warning beforehand nor any sort of explanation afterwards.

Meanwhile, just across the Peruvian border, residents of the Puno region in southeastern Peru got a better show … and a bigger scare. El Comercio reported that people in Loreto, San Antonio de Putina, Moho, and other neighboring areas not only saw the bright object but heard a “loud roar.” Again, no warnings were given and no explanations were forthcoming from local or Peruvian government authorities.

The sky was raining fireballs and explosions were heard periodically. Some residents were worried that bombs were being dropped over the region.

After Peruvians got word from their media about the major fireball explosions over Detroit, Michigan and the money that could be made from recovering space rocks. Space investigators were paying up to $20,000 per kilo of meteor matter and so the people of Peru decided to go treasure hunting. On the morning of the 28th, another loud roar was heard, but this time it was in the Larancahuani community where hunters found something that was not a meteor but was definitely from outer space.

Near a hole that appeared to be a small impact crater about 1 foot deep, they found a round metallic object measuring about 40 inches in diameter and weighing nearly one hundred pounds. The object had protuberances on the top and bottom, giving it a resemblance to classic flying saucer.

Those brave enough to get close to it said it smelled of ozone – or electric welding, which is the distinct odor of burnt metallic oxides – not surprising if the object just fell from space. Those even braver enough to touch the object said it made a sound as if it was expelling gas like a balloon.

Word of the object spread quickly and representatives of the Center of Interests Aerospace of the FAP (Fuerza Aérea del Perú – the Peruvian Air Force) showed up, declared it to be the “tank of an inoperative satellite that could have its origin for China, Russia, or North America,” turned it over to the army and ordered the local police to block the area in case of a possible radiation danger.

On January 22, a 26 foot wide crater was seen just off a rural road in Mexico.

Drivers using the Torreón – Saltillo highway were left baffled by a deep smoking hole in the ground that was burning from the inside out.

It was 26 feet in diameter and 26 feet deep. There were no fragments near the pit; first responders were unable to climb into the hole because the bottom was burning ground underneath.

It certainly could have been the result of falling space debris.

These encounters with space debris are only the tip of the iceberg as China has warned the world that their now defunct space station will meet its fiery end as it plunges into planet Earth in March.

The Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, is the first Chinese space station launched into orbit in 2011 and is due to fall to earth next month.

The Tiangong-1 station will mostly burn up as it plummets through Earth’s atmosphere. Some fragments could survive the fiery reentry.

Ground stations have been able to track Tiangong-1 as it speeds along at 16,000 miles an hour some 180 miles above Earth. But as gravity exerts its pull and the station’s orbit decays, it becomes hard to predict the station’s position over the planet.

Researchers won’t be able to determine with any reliability the ground track — the path along which debris could fall — until roughly a day or two before the satellite falls.

Once it starts to break apart there is no telling how many miles the debris will spread. It is being predicted that the debris field may spread across the 43rd degree north parallel.

In other words: Somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.

When scientists track space debris they not only monitor its burning point, but what is burning as it comes down. First they observe the object breaking into a number of smaller fragments, each falling independently.

Much of the structure of the original object, typically aluminum, has melted away; objects made of high melting point materials like titanium, glass, and steel have survived in the past, and even some objects made of low melting point materials have survived because they were released very early in the trajectory and decelerated quickly or they were shielded from much of the reentry heating by other objects. There are competing effects that complicate the prediction of whether a given object will survive to impact.

If larger pieces survive the reentry process there can be a very minimal chance of human danger.

On February 1, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry killing all seven astronauts on board. Debris rained down over hundreds of square miles of Texas and Louisiana, smashing a rooftop, dumping deadly chemicals into a reservoir.

While residents of Texas watched helplessly as the space shuttle Columbia made its fiery descent, many were unaware that the trail of debris that was left in the doomed shuttle’s wake may have some hidden potentially deadly secrets.

Shuttles have long used a chemical called hydrazine to run their auxiliary power units. Hydrazine, a colorless liquid with an ammonia-like odor, is a toxic chemical and can cause harm to anyone who comes in contact with it.

A water plant was closed in the small town of Many, Louisiana because of fears that toxic debris fell into the Toledo Bend reservoir along the Texas-Louisiana border.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, short-term exposure to hydrazine leads to seizures, coma, pulmonary edema, as well as itchy airways, eyes, and nose. Long-term exposures have been linked to the development of cancer in humans.

There is a concern that that hydrazine tanks could survive reentry when the Tiangong-1 station plunges to earth.

Chinese authorities stressed that Tiangong-1’s reentry will not pose a direct threat to life on Earth, and most of the spacecraft will burn up in the intense heat of its descent.

But there are some heavier parts of the 8.5 ton space laboratory that could survive the hellish journey down to Earth.

While the potential of you being hit by the station or even your town being hit is minimal, the Pentagon has acknowledged that the volume of abandoned rockets, shattered satellites and missile shrapnel in the Earth’s orbit is reaching a “tipping point” and there could very well be a problem where a big chunk of space junk could thrust its way through the mess, drifting gradually to hit other satellites and cause problems that could be felt for years afterward. We would see cable television stations shut down. GPS systems, phone lines, certain internet providers, weather prediction models, and perhaps even military satellites disrupted by the event.

Back in February of 2009, two satellites collided and debris was sent towards the Earth. The rain of metal was scattered over Texas and Kentucky. It also sparked a brush fire in a Texas dry field.

Back then, there was concern the debris field that encircled the Earth could have damaged the ISS. There were also several military agencies and The Federal Emergency Management Agency on alert for any damage or harm the collision may have caused.

While much of what we see in the sky is unknown, a lot of things are simply space debris or space junk.

Most of the space junk is tracked by NASA; however, there are times when things fall out of the sky that make us wonder what is really up there.

Meanwhile, we can look up tonight and think about an astronaut speeding through space in a red roadster reminding us that thanks to Elon Musk – we can actually say that there’s a star man waiting in the sky – one that won’t fall to Earth anytime soon.