China's out-of-control space station may release a toxic chemical when it crashes

  • A falling Chinese space station dubbed Tiangong-1, or "Heavenly Palace," is about to break up into pieces in the atmosphere and crash to Earth. It will likely go down this weekend.
  • Experts say it is nearly impossible to determine the exact time and location of the crash.
  • The 9.4-ton spacecraft potentially contains large amounts of hydrazine, a toxic, flammable chemical that is very dangerous to humans.
  • But debris from Tiangong-1 is extremely unlikely to hit people.

In 2011, China launched a space station called Tiangong-1 but lost control of it five years later, due to an apparent malfunction that ended communications with the craft.

The 9.4-ton station is now on the verge of breaking up in the atmosphere, with the debris crashing to Earth this weekend.

While scientists say pieces of Tiangong-1 are extremely unlikely to hit people, the station may contain a toxic, flammable chemical called hydrazine.

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Tiangong-1 China's spacecraft
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Tiangong-1 China's spacecraft
BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 25: (CHINA OUT) Astronaut Zhang Xiaoguang attends a training on April 25, 2013 in Beijing, China. The three astronauts will be carried by the Shenzhou X spacecraft to visit the Tiangong-1 space module. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MAY 08: (CHINA OUT) Astronaut Nie Haisheng attends a training on May 8, 2013 in Beijing, China. The three astronauts will be carried by the Shenzhou X spacecraft to visit the Tiangong-1 space module. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 25: (CHINA OUT) Astronaut Wang Yaping attends a training on April 25, 2013 in Beijing, China. The three astronauts will be carried by the Shenzhou X spacecraft to visit the Tiangong-1 space module. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Astronauts of the Tiangong-1/Shenzhou-9 Manned Space Docking and Rendezvous Mission delegation Liu Yang (L), Jing Haipeng (2nd L) and Liu Wang (R) arrive at Hong Kong's international airport on August 10, 2012. The members of the delegation are on a on a four-day visit aimed at sharing their experiences and knowledge about space technology. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages)
Astronauts (L to R in blue suits) Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and Liu Yang of the Tiangong-1/Shenzhou-9 Manned Space Docking and Rendezvous Mission delegation attend a press conference in Hong Kong on August 10, 2012. Three astronauts from China's first manual space docking mission received a rowdy welcome from hundreds of flag-waving children as they arrived in Hong Kong on August 10 for a four-day visit. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages)
JIUQUAN, CHINA - JUNE 03: (CHINA OUT) The spacecraft of Shenzhou X is seen on top of the Long March 2F launch vehicle at the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 3, 2013 in Jiuquan, China. China will launch the Shenzhou X spacecraft in the middle of June. The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. China will launch the Shenzhou X spacecraft in the middle of June, a spokesperson for the manned space program was quoted as saying by China Central Television on June 3.The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module, state media reported. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. China will launch the Shenzhou X spacecraft in the middle of June, a spokesperson for the manned space program was quoted as saying by China Central Television on June 3.The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module, state media reported. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The Shenzhou X spacecraft carried by a Long March-2F carrier rocket is installed at the launch pad in Jiuquan, Northwest China's Gansu province in the morning of June 3, 2013. China will launch the Shenzhou X spacecraft in the middle of June, a spokesperson for the manned space program was quoted as saying by China Central Television on June 3.The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module, state media reported. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
JIUQUAN, CHINA - JUNE 03: (CHINA OUT) The spacecraft of Shenzhou X is seen on top of the Long March 2F launch vehicle at the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on June 3, 2013 in Jiuquan, China. China will launch the Shenzhou X spacecraft in the middle of June. The spacecraft will carry three astronauts to visit the Tiangong-1 space module. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
A girl in a school in Beijing asks Chinese female astrounaut Wang Yaping (Top R) questions as Wang delivers a lesson to students from Tiangong-1 space module in the morning of June 20, 2013. A Chinese astronaut orbiting more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) above the Earth's surface delivered a video class to children across the country on June 20, state television showed in a live broadcast. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese female astrounaut Wang Yaping is reflected in a drop of water floating in Tiangong-1 space module as she delivers a lesson to students that gathered in a school in Beijing in the morning of June 20, 2013. A Chinese astronaut orbiting more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) above the Earth's surface delivered a video class to children across the country on June 20, state television showed in a live broadcast. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Students gather in a school in Beijing as Chinese female astrounaut Wang Yaping (C on screen) and her two companions give them a live lesson from Tiangong-1 space module on the morning of June 20, 2013. A Chinese astronaut orbiting more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) above the Earth's surface delivered a video class to children across the country on June 20, state television showed in a live broadcast. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 13: (CHINA OUT) Scientists look at the screen shows the Shenzhou X manned spacecraft conducting docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module at Beijing Aerospace Control Center on June 13, 2013 in Beijing, China. China's Shenzhou X manned spacecraft successfully completed an automated docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module on Thursday. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
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The colorless and volatile liquid, used in Tiangong-1's engine for fuel, is dangerous to humans. Emitting an ammonia-like odor, hydrazine can poison the blood, kidneys, lungs, and the central nervous system. It can also severely burn skin and damage the eyes, nose, and mouth, among other things.

The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies (CORDS) warns: "Potentially, there may be a highly toxic and corrosive substance called hydrazine on board the spacecraft that could survive reentry. For your safety, do not touch any debris you may find on the ground nor inhale vapors it may emit."

As BI's Dave Mosher notes, it's nearly impossible to determine exactly where and when the satellite laboratory will land on Earth. On March 26, the European Space Agency released this map of where the space station might crash (highlighted in green):

tiangong1_risk_mapESAThe chances of Tiangong-1's re-entry are slightly higher in New Zealand, Tasmania, the northern states of the US, northern China, the Middle East, central Italy, northern Spain, and parts of South America and southern Africa.

The degree to which the Earth's atmosphere will burn up the craft is also still unclear, but scientists predict that some pieces will survive. The chunks could sprinkle over a long, thin area of up to 1,000 miles.

The best-case scenario would be that Tiangong-1 lands in the sea, which is statistically more likely than it hitting land, since oceans take up 70% of Earth. If it crashes into water, there would be less of a chance of a curious human hunting for the debris and coming into contact with hydrazine.

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SEE ALSO: These may be the last photos of the Chinese space station before it falls to Earth

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