Falling space debris is a greater threat than ever

hIstory remembers October 4, 1957, much better than it remembers January 4, 1958 – although in recent weeks the second date has begun to loom larger than the first. October 4, 1957 was the day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik – the world’s first satellite – an achievement that heralded the beginning of the space age.

“RUSSIAN SATELLITE CIRCLING THE EARTH,” cried Los Angeles times in banner title.

“REDS PERFORM A ‘MOON’ IN THE SKY,” replied the Chicago Daily Tribune.

There was no such hyperventilation, however, three months later until the day the tiny 84-kilogram (184 lb), beach-ball-sized satellite, slowly losing altitude due to atmospheric drag, fell from the sky, burning up like a small meteor in the fiery heat of re-entry . With this, the world’s first satellite became the world’s first piece of falling space debris. By no means will it be the last.

Ever since 1957, a massive belt of space junk — defunct satellites, spent rocket parts, bolts, debris, bits of paint, and more — has been accumulating around Earth. According to European Space Agency data (ESA), there are at least 36,500 objects of space debris larger than 10 cm (4 in) across; 1 million objects ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm (0.4 in to 4 in); and as many as 130 million ranging in size from 1 mm (0.04 in) to 1 cm (0.4 in). Not only does all this space junk pose a collision risk to both manned and unmanned spacecraft, it also threatens the 7.7 billion of us on the planet below.

Last weekend, on July 30, the 25-ton main stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket fell from the sky in an uncontrolled fall. Up to 40% of the giant booster survived the heat of re-entry, and despite Chinese assurances that the mass of spent metal posed little or no danger to population centers, chunks of debris rained down on Borneo.

“There are no reports of casualties or property damage, but the debris is close to villages and a few hundred meters in either direction could have been a different story,” tweeted astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


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The incident was particularly troubling because most national space programs and private-sector aerospace companies design their rockets to have enough maneuvering fuel on board to land at planned locations in the ocean or vast stretches of uninhabited steppe or desert. The Long March 5B has no such guidance system.

But China isn’t the only threat lately. Like The Guardian reports, a 10-foot-tall, monolith-like piece of debris that fell on an Australian farm last month has now been identified as belonging to SpaceX. One of the panels of debris examined by Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, bore a serial number that identified its origin.

NASA initially kept quiet about the SpaceX incident, with Administrator Bill Nelson reserving his fire for China. “The People’s Republic of China did not share specific information about the trajectory as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” he said in official statement. “All space nations should follow established best practices and do their part to share this type of information in advance.” In the sophisticated parlance of diplomacy, this counts as dressing down.

But as news reported this week, NASA has already said that SpaceX has confirmed that the object is “likely the remainder of the ejected trunk segment from Dragon spacecraft used during the Crew-1 mission’s return from the International Space Station last May,” like New York times wrote. Federal Aviation Administration Statement, reported of CNN, explained the trunk segment “usually burns up in the atmosphere.” However, “in this case it probably remained in orbit for more than a year and some parts of the trunk hardware survived to reach Earth.”

After all, finger wagging won’t solve anything. As national space programs around the world continue to launch and the private sector gets more into the game, the space debris problem is only going to get worse. This week, The Atlantic Council think tank issued a report calling on the world to come up with an international framework for managing orbital traffic – reporting and sharing information about launches and re-entries and developing ways to collect and clear some of the debris from orbit.

“Achieving security, economic and societal goals in the 21st century depends on free and open access to outer space,” the report’s authors wrote. “Now is the time to act and protect the future of security and prosperity in space.”

This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can register here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger c [email protected].

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