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Why people stillworry about the falling Chinese space station — despite the low odds


In 2016, Chinaannounced that its first human station, Tiangong-1, would make an uncontrolledreentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and given the module’s large size and density,some big pieces might survive all the way to the ground. It’s predictablygarnered a lot of attention, and the panic just won’t go away.
Of course, therehave been the standard frantic articles about the “doomed” station “spiralingout of control.” Some stories have insinuated that the station will fall in NewZealand’s backyard — though it’s far too early to know where it’s going toreenter. Others have hyped up the idea that toxic debris will rain down onEarth. It’s all hogwash.


As a spacereporter, I find this frustrating because I know how often objects fall toEarth without us being able to control them. The truth is Tiangong-1 is thelast thing anyone needs to worry about. Yes, the module is a bit bigger thanmost satellites that fall back to Earth, but the odds of any pieces falling onyour head are minuscule — less than your chances of getting hit by lightning.In fact, you can read all the reasons why you shouldn’t be scared of the spacestation in our article. A lot of other reporters have done some great reportingon this topic, too. But despite all of the information that’s available, I’ve runinto an interesting problem: people are still scared when I tell them the odds.
It’s somethingthat’s baffled me. Multiple people have asked about this, and even after Iexplain the situation, they still seem uneasy. Earlier this year, for instance,my co-worker Russell Brandom sent me an article about Tiangong-1’s demise. Ipointed him to our article, and told him everything was going to be fine. Hispanic didn’t subside. “Even a small chance of being killed by space debrisseems like too much,” he told me.


Russelltechnically has a small chance of being hit by space debris all the time —well, an infinitesimal one. A person’s lifetime risk of being hit by reenteringspace debris is about one in a trillion, according to the AerospaceCorporation, a nonprofit research organization that provides guidance on spacemissions. Tiangong-1 isn’t going to drastically increase those odds.


So why is thespace station still scaring people? I think most of the problem began with thefirst reports in 2016 that Tiangong-1 was “out of control.” It’s true: Chinadoesn’t have the ability to maneuver the space station from Earth anymore, andits orbit is slowly decaying. But this idea of an uncontrollable space stationprobably inspired visions of a huge chunk of metal spiraling wildly towardEarth. Plus, US companies nowadays often come up with ways to safely de-orbitlarger pieces of metal they send to orbit. “There are a lot more controlledreentries than 20 years ago, and for more massive objects, [companies and countries]take more care,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard andspaceflight expert.

那么为什么空间站还是让人们感到害怕?我认为,大部分问题始于2016年的第一次报道——天宫一号“失控”。 这是真的:中国再也没有能力从地球上操纵空间站了,它的轨道正在慢慢变低。但是,这种无法控制的空间站的想法可能激发了一大堆金属在疯狂地向地球洒落的景象。此外,美国公司现在经常会想出办法,安全地将他们送入轨道的大块金属碎片脱离轨道。哈佛大学的天体物理学家、航天专家乔纳森·麦克道尔说:“与20年前相比,有更多的受控制的重返,对于更大规模的物体,[公司和国家]要更加小心。”

Still,uncontrolled reentries happen all the time. The upper stages of SpaceX’s Falcon9, Russia’s Soyuz, or Europe’s Ariane 5 rockets don’t always do a controlledde-orbit after every launch. Those pieces range from two to four tons, sothey’re not quite as massive as Tiangong-1. But a rocket piece about the samemass as the Chinese space station made an uncontrolled fall to Earth this year.The upper stage of a Russian Zenit rocket fell over Peru in January, and it’sabout eight tons, close to the size of Tiangong-1. A tank or two made it to theground, but no injuries were reported.

然而,不受控制的再进入时有发生。SpaceX公司的猎鹰9号、俄罗斯的联盟号或欧洲的Ariane 5号火箭的上一级火箭在每次发射后并不总是都能进行控制。这些碎片的范围从2吨到4吨不等,所以它们不像天宫一号那么大。但是,一枚与中国太空站相同质量的火箭,今年却失控坠落。今年1月,俄罗斯一枚泽尼特火箭的上一级在秘鲁上空坠落,大约有8吨,接近天宫一号的大小。一或两个仓到达地面,但没有人员伤亡报告。

Granted, the Zenitupper stage is mostly comprised of empty fuel tanks, and Tiangong-1 is denser.“It’s got a lot of heavy equipment, so it’s not like a rocket stage that’s abig empty tank,” says McDowell. “People are worried more [about if] it mightreach the ground.” That may be the other piece of the puzzle, too: the idea ofa space station falling to Earth is more menacing than a piece of a rocket oran average satellite.


I’ve started towonder if this isn’t just another example of how our brains aren’t very good atassessing real-world risks. Our brains are very sensitive to risk. That’s whatkept us alive back when everything around us was a legitimate risk toourselves. This backfires today because we hear about all sorts of things thatseem dangerous but aren’t likely to harm us at all.


Novelty definitelyplays a role. This is the same reason many people are far more worried aboutplane crashes (which aren’t common anymore) than car crashes (which happen allthe time). Plane crashes seem rare and terrible, and so they stick in our mindsmore; car crashes, while tragic, don’t grab our attention. It’s easy to feelfrightened by terrorist attacks, which seem catastrophic, but we’re actuallymore likely to be killed by falling furniture.


The Nobel Prize-winningpsychologist Daniel Kahneman is famous for suggesting that our brain runs twosystems: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is your quick, intuitive, emotionalresponses, like being afraid when you hear that a space station could fall onyour head. System 2 is the deliberate, reasonable response that takes a lot ofcognitive energy, like slowing down to calculate the probability that the spacestation will actually fall on your head. You can’t stop System 1 from running,and emotions are powerful. Unfortunately, not a lot of people take the time todo the calculations, and so they remain afraid.


So, Russell’s fearof even a small chance of space debris falling on him is a great example ofSystem 1 out of control. I told him this. “Are fears ever rational?” he asked.“I feel like you’re just afraid of the things you’re afraid of.” It’s a goodpoint. Every time I pass over the Queensboro Bridge in New York, I think aboutour car swerving and plunging into the East River. It’s not likely to happen,but I’ll forever worry about it even if someone tells me the odds.


The good newsabout Tiangong-1 is that people won’t have to worry for much longer. TheEuropean Space Agency estimates that the station will likely come down sometimebetween March 29th and April 9th, though those dates are still subject tochange. Once it falls, the risk will be eliminated. But if you want to scareyourself with space debris, there’s always NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope:unless NASA sends another mission to Hubble, the observatory will have to comedown at some point, too — and it’s even heavier than Tiangong-1.


原创翻译:龙腾网 http://www.ltaaa.com 翻译:cnbsmt 转载请注明出处

Cause it isn’tzero.
And people stillbuy the powerball despite the low odds as well.
Posted on Mar 11,2018 | 9:26 AM


That’s thanks tothe high levels of poverty in the U.S. The Powerball odds as bad as they are,are still better odds than they have of ever making decent money.
Posted on Mar 11,2018 | 5:29 PM


Also sad is thatstudies have shown that the poorer lotto players play more often for the actualexpectation of winning money than just for occasional fun.


If it hit Trump,it would be strong evidence for the presence of God in the universe, and thathe/she has a sense of humor.
Posted on Mar 11,2018 | 10:36 AM


"It’s allhogwash"
Indeed, it’s allfear-mongering, sensationalist, yellow journalism garbage; and when it isn’tjust a tabloid rag kind of click-baiting it does look like a concerted andfixated propaganda: trying to belittle China (so many "newspapers"trying to turn that story into a "political symbol" of a"fail" [sic], while voluntarily omitting to report the known factsabout this prototype space station), the kind part of the daily jingoistpropaganda designating anything China as a threat for the US/Western public
Posted on Mar 11,2018 | 10:47 AM

的确,这都是杞人忧天,耸人听闻,黄色新闻的垃圾;当它不只是点击诱饵式的文摘时,它的确看起来像是协调好的和固定的宣传: 试图贬低中国(很多“报纸”试图把这个故事变成一个“失败”的“政治符号”, 而自愿地忽略了关于这是个空间站雏形的已知事实),这是日常沙文主义宣传的一部分,将中国的所有东西视为对美国/西方公众的威胁

People areHORRIBLE at assessing risk. I am reminded of that with every story I read aboutschool shootings. For example, a student is 6 times more likely to die in aSCHOOL BUS ACCIDENT than a school shooting. The number of deaths from schoolshootings is less than the number of toddlers who drown IN FIVE GALLON BUCKETS.Meanwhile, what we eat, whether we exercise, smoking, medical malpractice… evenfalling down – remain REAL risks of death.
Annual Deaths byCause of Death
(Average per year,or most recent year for which data could be found)
Heart Disease :614,348
Cancer : 591,699
Falling down :556,000
MedicalMalpractice : 250,000
Respiratorydisease : 147,101
Suicide : 44,962
Suffocation :35,600
Car crashes :32,166
Drowning : 3,536
Fire : 3,362
Bicycle Accidents: 818
Bus Accidents :295
School BusAccidents : 138
Heat or Drought :112
Thunderstorm, fog,hail107
Winter Weather :103
Flooding : 80
Tornado : 66
Lightning : 65
Drowning (in 5gallon buckets) : 27
School shootings :23, wind : 107
Winter Weather :103
Flooding : 80
Tornado : 66
Lightning : 65
Drowning (in 5gallon buckets) : 27
School shootings :23
Coastal (stormsurge, rip current) : 13
Hurricane orTropical Storm : 9
Earthquake,Tsunami, Volcano : 9
Mass Movement(avalanche, landslide) : 5
Terrorism (in theUnited States) : 5
Wildfire : 2
Shark attack : 1


Its easy to jumpto conclusions reading stats like these. I just quickly googled US school busaccident numbers they include deaths for the occupants of busses but alsoanyone hit by the school bus. And bus deaths are far more likely to occur inthe smaller vehicle thats hit


An importantdistinction between the causes is whether we have control (or how much control)over the prevention. Eg we can easily avoid fire deaths by installing smokealarms, and being safe with fire at home
While Im notworried about the satellite (despite living in NZ), the lack of control isn’t agood feeling


Andy Gates
Trousers! They’redeadly. People hop around trying to get the other leg in and fall over and itends badly. I think trousers kill more people than cyclists do in the UK, butthe media doesn’t hype the two-legged menace so… shrug.
Posted on Mar 12,2018 | 6:44 AM


Vegan Butcher
I’m not worried,I’m just concerned.
Posted on Mar 11,2018 | 12:27 PM


I think part ofthe fear stems from a lack of control. There are behaviours which make dyingfrom a lightening strike more probable. The same is true for crossing thestreet or heart disease. Humans don’t like situations where they have nocontrol over the outcome. This is one of those situations.


I think part ofthe fear stems from the way we discuss it.
When we talk about"parts of a rocket," parts implies that they’re not as big as anentire rocket, which is something we’re somewhat familiar with. (Familiar inthe sense that we’ve seen pictures of them in the news, though I find when Isee them contrasted next to more familiar objects I am still frequently surprised/intriguedjust how giant they are.)
When we talk abouta satellite, I think that familiarity diminishes a bit. Satellites can beanywhere from pumpkin sized (Cubesats) to school-bus sized (Hubble) andanywhere in between. I think the idea of what constitutes a satellite to mostpeople is a bit fuzzy, and if they think about it at all, they don’t thinkabout it crashing into their house.
When we talk abouta space station, that idea is less fuzzy. We know it’s big enough. We know thatpeople (many people!) fit inside! The ISS has dimensions comparable to afootball field. Some of us are old enough to remember Mir and Skylab and thoseimages are very familiar, because they’re relatable. When we talk about a spacestation, I think those people that are likely to be concerned are so simplybecause the idea of a can big enough to house 10 people is something they canimagine.

当我们谈论空间站时,这个概念就不那么模糊了。我们知道它足够大。我们知道,人们(很多人!)足以呆在里面! 国际空间站的尺寸与足球场相当。我们中的一些人已经足够大,可以记住和平号空间站和天空实验室,这些图像是非常熟悉的,因为它们有关联。当我们谈论空间站的时候,我想那些可能会担忧的人是如此简单,因为一个大到能容纳10个人的物体的概念是他们可以想象的。

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