What's The Largest Man-Made Object To Ever Fall To Earth From Space?

The space station Mir returned to Earth in 2001. NASA

If you’ve been paying any attention to space news recently, you’re probably aware that China’s Tiangong-1 space station is about to fall uncontrolled to Earth, possibly over Easter weekend.

This has spawned all sorts of alarming headlines, but even though it weighs 8,500 kilograms (18,700 pounds), it’s not actually that big. And it pales in comparison to other objects that have fallen onto our planet.

In fact, in the history of man-made objects that have returned to Earth, it ranks pretty low. So we thought we’d run through some of the biggest objects that have actually re-entered our atmosphere.

Pieces of Tiangong-1 may still make it to the ground, although you probably haven’t got too much to worry about. But here’s how the Chinese station stacks up to some of its bigger competitors.

Mir

The biggest re-entry in history was the return of Russia’s Mir space station on March 23, 2001. It weighed a whopping 130,000 kilograms (285,000 pounds), 15 times more than Tiangong-1.

Mir was the biggest space station to orbit Earth until the International Space Station (ISS) was built in the 21st century. It was launched by the Soviet Union in 1986, and was used to conduct research, perform experiments, and much more.

The arrival of the ISS, and a lack of funding, meant that Russia decided to purposefully deorbit Mir in 2001. This was a controlled re-entry, using a docked Progress spacecraft to lower the station’s orbit into the atmosphere and ultimately destroy it.

Re-entry occurred near Fiji, with footage showing the moments it burned up in the atmosphere. At the time, there were plenty of concerns about it hitting inhabited areas or ships, but fortunately it hit in the middle of the ocean, far from any people.

Space Shuttle Columbia

On February 1, 2003, NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, killing its seven crew members on board.

With a mass of about 74,000 kilograms (163,000 pounds), it is the second-largest man-made object to break apart on re-entry. Debris from the re-entry fell across a band from Nacogdoches in East Texas to western Louisiana and southwestern Arkansas. No injuries or casualties were reported from the debris.

The breakup was caused by a hole in the wing of the shuttle, which had suffered from a piece of foam striking it at launch. The Space Shuttle program was put on hiatus for more than two years as a result of the accident, and in 2011 it was retired.

Skylab

Skylab was NASA’s first space station, launched in a single launch by a Saturn V rocket in 1973. It weighed 77,000 kilograms (170,000 pounds), nine times Tiangong-1, and had space comparable to a three-bedroom house. Three crews visited the station, with the last crew leaving in 1974.  

The station was left in orbit, but in 1978 it was revealed that increased solar activity would push it lower in its orbit. NASA had plans to boost its orbit with a Space Shuttle, but when the Shuttle program was delayed to 1981, they decided the station could not be saved.

Skylab fell uncontrollably, re-entering the atmosphere on July 11, 1979. Most of the station broke apart, but some pieces fell on a town called the Shire of Esperance in Western Australia. They jokingly fined NASA $400, which was paid in 2009 by a US radio host.

Skylab re-entered in 1979. NASA
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