Falling Chinese Space Station And A Scorched Exoplanet

7:26 minutes

The China National Space Administration launched the Tiangong-1 station in the fall of 2011 as a scientific laboratory and a module to practice space dockings. Since 2016, the agency stopped communications with the station, which is predicted to fall back to Earth, but the exact time and location of the landing is not known. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter for Fivethirtyeight.com, talks about what is known about the possible crash site and discusses an exoplanet that may have been caught in a solar flare up.  

[The infinitely surprising career of a mathematician.]

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, how a virus fished out of a lake healed a man’s deadly infection. But first, this March is a great month for a night sky gazing. I’m going to get out my telescope because Mercury and Venus will line up close to each other. Low on the horizon, you have Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn also being bunched together.

And if you’re lucky, you might catch another bright spot in the sky. No, it’s not a planet or a star. It’ll be a falling space station crashing to the Earth, hopefully not near you. Maggie Koerth-Baker is here to fill us in on that story. She’s Senior Science Reporter at FiveThirtyEight.com. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we know the station is going to come crashing down somewhere. But how many more details than that? I mean– [CHUCKLING]– that’s all we know, right?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Scientists have left it pleasantly vague. So, sometime between March 29 and April 9, and somewhere in a area of the world that covers Spain, France, Portugal, Greece, and I quote, et cetera.

IRA FLATOW: Et cetera. [CHUCKLING] It’s good, right, the escape clause. Now, the Chinese Space Agency was using the station for five years, right? What was it used for?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: For basic scientific research. It was part of their push to become a space faring power. The first Chinese woman in space went there. And they apparently lost control of it somewhere around 2016. So now it is descending to Earth without anyone being able to guide it to some other place that’s not populated.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I remember covering NASA’s Skylab falling in 1979. There was always stuff coming back down to Earth.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, there’s always stuff coming back down to Earth. There’s probably about one piece of space junk that falls to Earth every day. Most of it is not this big. The chunks of this space station could be as big as 220 pounds. But the good news is that in this entire history of space junk falling to Earth, there’s only ever been one person that we know of that got hit with space junk. And that is Lottie Williams of Oklahoma, who got bopped on the shoulder by a 6-inch long fragment of a second stage Delta rocket back in 1997. She was fine.

IRA FLATOW: Bopped– that’s how it is. She got bopped by that. OK. I hope she was not more, you know– well, we’ll move on. [LAUGHTER] Let’s move on to a study out this week. It looked at the representation of women scientists when it comes to the big journals, as this is a month we’re talking about it. What did it find?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So this was an analysis of prestigious multi-disciplinary science journals. And it showed women were under-represented as published authors in these journals. And that was even compared to the rates at which women received prominent research grants– the kind that end up funding the research these journals tend to publish. So for instance, when the study looked at Nature, they found that women accounted for fewer than 15% of last authors on papers published in Nature, which that usually means the most senior person involved in the research.

And 27% of NIH, National Institute of Health, and UK Medical Research Council grants were going to female lab heads. So you have 27% of these big grants going to women researchers. But only 15% of the papers in Nature were representing those women. The authors also found a negative correlation between a journal’s five-year impact factor and the percentage of first and last authors that were women. So basically, the more big deal a journal is, the fewer women are getting past the gatekeepers.

IRA FLATOW: And do we know why the disparities between the grants and the publications?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: They have not speculated on that. This isn’t the first paper to show gender imbalances in scientific publishing. There have been quite a few over the last few years that showed various types of gender imbalance, both on editorial staffs and in publications, and also in reviewers. And they did, though, make a suggestion that maybe what we need to do is have more mandatory double-blind reviewing. Because there’s apparently been a couple of studies that show that mandatory double-blind reviewing actually seems to reduce those gender imbalances in what’s deemed worthy for publication.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Let’s move on to coral reefs being affected by warming oceans. We know that they’re shrinking or dying. And scientists have found another effect of eroding corals.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right. So we know that coral reefs have been shrinking. They’ve been dying. Part of that is from warming oceans. Part of that is from human intervention. I mean, people touching them– getting sunscreen chemicals on them– all of those things can hurt and kill them. But we also know that coral reefs dissipate the energy from waves. And because these reefs form near islands, it ends up affecting the people that live on those islands and the communities that are on those islands.

So as corals become more stressed, they grow more slowly. And they become less complex. So combined with rising sea levels, that could mean big trouble for these low-lying coastal communities that have depended on reefs for protection from big waves. This new analysis shows that by 2100, the average wave height at several locations in the South Pacific could be more than two times higher than it is today, exacerbating that flooding from the rising sea levels even more.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and then you have shrinking corals. Then you have rising waves and sea levels. It’s not good news.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move on to something that’s kind of interesting also that you’re going to talk about. And that’s there has been a flare-up with one of our neighboring exoplanets. It was a candidate for life. I was rooting for this one.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Everyone was rooting for Proxima Centauri b.

IRA FLATOW: It’s so close, isn’t it?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It is. It’s only 4.2 light years away. It was found in 2013. It’s in the habitable zone around its star. It’s this candidate for extraterrestrial life. But unfortunately, some recently published research has found some bad news about li’l b. It probably got fried last year sometime in March.

That is because its sun, Proxima Centauri, got 1,000 times brighter than normal for about 10 seconds on March 24, 2017. And most likely, that means a massive solar flare. So 4,000 times the radiation Earth usually gets from the Sun blasted out all at once at this little planet. As one of the scientists told Science News, that means that the planet is likely not in the best shape.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a euphemism for being toast, literally.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: A little bit. Yeah. And it also sort of implies that this could be something that happens fairly frequently with Proxima Centauri, which would really put a damper on life on Proxima Centauri b.

IRA FLATOW: No hope then. No hope for [INAUDIBLE].

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: I wouldn’t say no hope.


MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: But it definitely makes it less likely.

IRA FLATOW: I like that because, you know, at four light years away, you know, you could have a conversation back and forth in a lifetime. And that’s–


IRA FLATOW: –you know, that’s very sad, Maggie. Thank you. Well, I’m glad we kept that for last, Maggie Koerth-Baker.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: I’m happy to provide you all the depressing news.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHTER] Oh, no. You can’t even come close. [CHUCKLING] Maggie Koerth-Baker, Senior Science Reporter for FiveThirtyEight.com. Thanks.

Copyright © 2018 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

Explore More

Making An Entrance: The First Black Women At Langley Lab

In this excerpt from "Hidden Figures," Margot Lee Shetterly describes the integration of Black female mathematicians at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Read More