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Why taking parts of the Chinese space station set to crash to Earth is a bad idea

Why taking parts of the Chinese space station set to crash to Earth is a bad idea

Space nuts and nervous Nellies alike are looking to the skies Sunday as a school-bus-sized Chinese space station careens toward Earth.

Don’t go hunting for souvenirs if the plummeting, unmanned Chinese space station breaks up over New York City: Pocketing a piece of the fallen space junk could land you in jail, ­experts say.

“According to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, a country’s spacecraft is their legal property until they say that it’s not their legal property,” space historian Robert Z. Pearlman told LiveScience.com.

“No matter where it lands — whether it lands in the ocean and sinks to the bottom of the sea, or whether it lands on their own land or some other country’s land — it belongs to that country of origin.”

Up to 440 pounds of mangled debris is likely to survive re-entry into the atmosphere, according to Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. Bits and pieces will be scattered over a debris field that could be 400 miles long and 30 miles wide — and the US danger zone, where the remains are most likely to drop, stretches from Northern California all the way to the five boroughs.

But every last scrap belongs to China and keeping any of it is punishable by a fine of $10,000 or up to 10 years in the slammer.

Not only is it illegal, it’s dangerous, too. Most of the wreckage will be red-hot when it hits the ground and is likely contaminated with hydrazine, a highly toxic and corrosive chemical.

The latest estimate from the European Space Agency pegs the space station’s re-entry at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, give or take seven hours. The unmanned and uncontrollable craft will set off a spectacular series of fireballs as it breaks up in the lower atmosphere.

Your chances of actually being hit with a piece of its shrapnel are vanishingly small: about 1 in 292 trillion, experts estimate.

But it’s not impossible. It happened to Lettie Williams of Tulsa, Okla., in 1997, who was bonked with a piece of a Delta-2 rocket as she walked in a park.

“It rolled off my shoulder and onto the ground, and it sounded metallic,” Williams told CBS News on Saturday.

She is the only person in human history to have been hit by a piece of a re-entering spacecraft — so far.

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