Earlier this week, Juno sent back its first images of Jupiter, Io, Ganymede, and Europa. It’s a thrilling way to kick off our exploration of the Jovian system and its various moons. Then news broke that a Chinese satellite might be out of control and falling towards us, while NASA is probably hiding evidence of UFOs when it cut the ISS video feed earlier today.
Let’s take ’em in order, shall we?
The Tiangong-1 was China’s first attempt to launch an orbital space station for conducting remote experiments and testing its own orbital docking and rendezvous capabilities. It’s conceptually similar to Skylab, which reused hardware left over from the Apollo program to create the world’s first (short-term) space station. It’s much smaller than Skylab, however, with a pressurized volume of 15 cubic meters compared with the 350-cubic-meter volume of both Skylab and Mir. It’s also a fraction of the weight, at just 18,753 pounds compared with 170,000 pounds for Skylab.
China successfully used Tiangong-1 to test its orbital docking systems, and a later manned crew was able to occupy the station for roughly 11 days in 2012 and for two weeks in 2013. Since then, the satellite has been in sleep mode, though China’s Manned Space Engineering Office announced a total loss of telemetry and guidance control back in March 2016. Back in June, an amateur astronomer named Thomas Dorman told Space.com he thought China had lost control of the satellite (it has), and that it could spark a calamitous event.
“If I am right, China will wait until the last minute to let the world know it has a problem with their space station,” Dorman told Space.com. “It could be a real bad day if pieces of this came down in a populated area … but odds are, it will land in the ocean or in an unpopulated area.”
We here at ExtremeTech are firmly on the side of those who think death-by-meteor is a bad idea, but this story isn’t new and it isn’t a sign that some giant fireball is about to smash the planet. Skylab and Mir both de-orbited without incident, and both were far larger than the small Chinese station.
The other report concerns claims that NASA cut off the signal from the High Definition Earth Viewing experiment when a UFO entered range. The video, which can be seen below, does show something in the camera’s field of view.
NASA denies that it cut the feed on purpose — or that anyone even automatically monitors it. “We have never seen UFOs in the popular sense,” a NASA spokesperson told Popular Mechanics (reportedly after a “long, deep sigh”). “The feed in question is the High Definition Earth Viewing experiment. Anytime the ISS has a signal, that feed is sending down video.”
“The feed is not switched manually,” the spokesperson continued. “It’s all done automatically. There’s nobody at a control board. We used a space-based data relay network. It gives us a very good coverage area, but you do lose signal occasionally—anywhere from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes. It varies from day to day.”
Plunging satellites and evil alien incursions would definitely spice things up a bit — but so far, there’s no evidence either is occurring here.