- Space junk, apparently from China and a SpaceX NASA mission, fell to Earth and crashed to the ground.
- The researchers calculated that within a decade there was a 10% chance that a person would be killed by falling space debris.
- Experts say controlled reentry, study of fallen debris, and warning systems can reduce those obstacles.
It’s raining rocket parts, and space-junk experts fear that someday a chunk of debris falling from Earth’s orbit will strike a person.
The booster of the 25-ton Long March 5B rocket, which pushed part of China’s new space station into orbit in late July, crashed back to Earth on Saturday.
Although some of the booster may have burned up as it fell from Earth’s atmosphere, reports There are indications that parts of the rocket survived the fall and crashed near the inhabited areas of Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia. Debris was found on both the Malaysian and Indonesian sides of the island, as well as in the sea. Philippines, The reported locations of the debris were along the path of the booster’s re-entry into the atmosphere, previously calculated by orbital-debris specialists.
“They definitely look like rocket parts to me,” said Ted Muelhopt, a consultant in the Aerospace Corporation’s chief engineer’s office, adding that “I have no reason to dispute that it’s pieces of this rocket.”
In July, a shepherd in Australia discovered a mysterious piece of debris clinging to the ground, about 10 feet long. On Wednesday, the Australian Space Agency Told The giant piece of hardware came from the abandoned trunk of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship, which carried astronauts for NASA last year.
Only China and SpaceX can confirm that these pieces came from their spacecraft. But experts like Muelhaupt say they believe the reports.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who carefully tracks objects in Earth’s orbit, told Insider.
These are some striking examples of a widespread phenomenon. According to Muelhaupt, who works at the Aerospace Corporation, every day, many man-made objects fall out of orbit and return to Earth. reentry database,
Many space objects burn up in the atmosphere, but pieces of material regularly survive falling. Experts at the Aerospace Corporation say that up to 40% of the mass of a large space body falling from orbit will reach the ground. About once a week, an object weighing at least 1 ton falls from orbit and re-enters the atmosphere, Muelhaupt said.
one in study Published in the journal Nature in July, the researchers calculated a roughly 10% chance that the debris would strike one or more people within a 10-year period.
“If you throw the dice many times, someone will be lucky,” McDowell said.
Crowded skies mean more space debris falling
Normally, after launch, rocket boosters push themselves to the most remote part of the Pacific Ocean – a process known as “controlled reentry”. Small discarded objects, such as the trunk of Crew Dragon, either burn up in the atmosphere or enter orbit around Earth and remain there.
But in the case of the Long March 5B, China did not design a rocket booster for controlled reentry. Instead, it randomly fell back to Earth in each of the three launches. In May 2020, the wreckage of one of those rockets was discovered near two villages on the Ivory Coast, reportedly causing property damage.
The Long March 5B boosters are among the largest objects to fall back to Earth, but the uncontrolled reentry is not unique to China. In 1979, NASA’s Skylab space station rapidly descended, scattering debris over Australia. Today, however, controlled reentry is standard practice.
Despite the increase in space activity in recent years, inactive space objects are increasingly being brought back to Earth under control. “Whereas 30 years ago, a rocket stage would have been dropped into orbit and a few years later there would be an uncontrolled re-entry,” McDowell said.
Still, Muelhaupt fears that there will be more frequent incidents of falling junk — such as the part of the Crew Dragon that landed in Australia — in the future. In spaceflight, the standard acceptable level of risk to human life is one in 10,000. But when companies like SpaceX plan to launch thousands of satellites into orbit, those odds mean some of them will leave bits of metal on Earth.
With the many companies launching satellite constellations and more space agencies flying spacecraft, there is a growing likelihood that the debris will land somewhere densely populated.
“You do it often enough, you do it long enough, you’re going to get lucky and make it to the middle of the city park,” Muelhaupt said.
take out space trash
For now, the best way to prevent a space-junk disaster is to persuade all countries and companies to practice controlled re-entry.
“The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, tweeted on Saturday, saying that all astronaut countries must participate in responsible space behavior.
“Doing so is critical to the responsible use of space and ensuring the safety of people on Earth,” Nelson said.
Companies and space agencies can also study space debris to find out why it fell from orbit, and why parts of it didn’t burn up along the way. For example, Muelhaupt said the largest piece of suspected SpaceX debris in Australia is a section where the metal connects to the carbon fiber. Why that attachment broke with the rest of the spacecraft and escaped to Earth in flames is a question Muelhaupt seeks to answer.
“I hope they go to pick it up and then let us know,” Muelhaupt said.
A better understanding of falling debris could help inform real-time warning systems for both people on the ground and those flying the aircraft. Muelhaupt said that with passenger planes crossing the planet at all times, there should be space-debris information for pilots. A collision is unlikely, but if it did happen the damage would be catastrophic, especially for a commercial flight with no passengers.
“The prospect of hitting an unprotected person standing in the open is one thing, but you get a plane in flight, now all of a sudden the consequences are huge,” Muelhaupt said.
He fears it will be a disaster to push regulators and companies to make real change.
“I hate to say it: When something bad happens to someone, that’s when we react,” Muelhaupt said.