Space: Could space debris really fall on us?

A spacecraft planted in the middle of a field in Australia. Unfortunately, this is not proof that extraterrestrials are trying to contact us, but rather the result, for once, of human responsibility. Satellites, rocket bodies, remnants of space missions If men have sent thousands of satellites into space since 1957, it’s time to take Earth’s decline seriously, warn astrophysicists.

Space Expeditions: What You Didn’t Know About the Conquest of the Moon

Fragments of a crashed SpaceX vehicle in Australia

In July 2022, a piece of space debris about 2.5 meters planted itself in a sheep farmer’s field in the Australian state of New South Wales. What does the flea put in the ear on the origin of the object? The deafening sounds heard by the inhabitants of the region, which predated the discovery. Similar remains of the device have also been found at two neighboring sites. Confirmed by the Australian Space Agency (ASA) which recalls that “We have to understand that there is a potential risk of it affecting a populated area“, the debris was identified as belonging to the SpaceX Crew-1 capsule, which launched last May.

In fact, the pieces relate to the module serving as a support for the capsule before it separates from the launcher, as well as the flight path of the device. Staying in orbit for over a year, the object entered the upper atmosphere before landing on Earth. Experts sent to the scene estimate that other debris from Elon Musk’s private company could return to Earth in the coming weeks.

Space debris, the danger hanging over us?

So, are the anecdotes true or alarming? A second response from astrophysicists calling on the international community for real awareness of the multiple dangers of space pollution. Although the risk remains relatively rare, it is not zero. This is not the first or last case of a piece of equipment sent into space ending up on Earth. And if the launch process is carried out in such a way that the landing of the stage that is destined to be released is controlled, it happens that something stays in the atmosphere and returns to the planet in an uncontrolled way, as was the case with the fragment. A Chinese rocket that disintegrated over the Indian Ocean sparked heated debate.

Image of debris from the SpaceX Crew-1 capsule that crashed into a rancher’s field in Australia. Brad Tucker, Australian National University astrophysicist

A rocket launch: 1 in 10,000 risk of death

We have been lucky so far, no one has been hurt“said Aaron Boley, co-author of a study on the subject published in the journal Nature Astronomy, in July 2022. To assess the risks, researchers at the University of British Columbia analyzed the return rate of objects to orbit over the past 30 years. Verdict? “The general rule of thumb is that a rocket launch and its components create less than 1 in 10,000 chance of killing or injuring someone. But that’s just the risk of an individual rocket.Emphasizes this holder of the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy at UBC.

A result that is based on a stable rate of reentry of rockets into the atmosphere for the next decade and therefore may increase with the increase in rockets sent into the atmosphere. However, according to experts, the billionaire machines have already engaged in about 1,600 “close encounters” with other satellites (less than a kilometer away). And at a time when Elon Musk plans to send a total of about 12,000 satellites for the Starlink project alone, the question of control comes up urgently.

>> 10 Best Places to Stargaze Around the World

Space pollution, an underestimated threat

“Humans are exceptionally good at underestimating the ability to disrupt the environment.”, Aaron Boley already estimated in a previous study last May on the thousands of satellites Starlink and its competitors Amazon, Starnet or OneWeb plan to send. Condemning the lack of a mandatory system to oversee missions in space, the scientist lamented:

“About 54 tonnes of meteorite material is coming in every day. […] We are witnessing a type of colonization in low orbit that would not be able to accommodate thousands of satellites without limits and without loss.

How are we trying to fix the problem?

What are states doing to fix it? Of course, today there are international guidelines and standards that outline the sustainable use of space. But if space agencies do accept them, their respect is subject to the goodwill of states, and none of them is binding. On its website, ESA details them:

  • Design launchers and spacecraft so that they “lose” as little material as possible – both during takeoff and during operation – as they encounter adverse conditions in space.
  • Prevent explosions by releasing stored energy, i.e. disabling end-of-life vehicles.
  • Place completed missions out of reach of operational satellites, either by de-orbiting them or sending them to graveyard orbits.
  • Avoid collisions in space by carefully choosing orbits and performing collision avoidance maneuvers.

Also Read :

How satellites can help track microplastics polluting oceans

How satellites can help track microplastics polluting oceans

World's premier space launcher

World’s premier space launcher

Space tourism: pollution on the horizon?

Space tourism: pollution on the horizon?

Leave a Comment