The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that there are currently more than 28,000 man-made objects in orbit as space debris, less than 8% of which are actually operational satellites and more than 11% of which are strictly obsolete. The stages and structure of the rocket and other related elements such as the lens cap.
Most satellite launches from the upper stage of a rocket float around the Earth in space, and this space debris eventually falls to Earth.
Researchers have found that falling debris from space launches, especially the upper stages of rockets, has a 1 in 10 chance of hitting or killing someone in the next decade.
Experts pledge to do more to remove space debris from orbit and develop more sustainable launch systems that don’t add more debris.
In 2020, it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of space launches result in a rocket being launched into orbit. falls to the ground
In a paper published last July in Nature Astronomy, Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia (UBC) and colleagues examined the risk of dropped missiles seriously injuring or even killing a person when they fall to the ground.
Using nearly 30 years of data from CelesTrak’s public catalog of satellites, the team calculated the potential risks to human life over the next decade.
The analyzes considered the estimated rate of uncontrolled return of rocket bodies, their orbits, human population and distribution projections.
The researchers hypothesized that each return event would spread the debris over an area of more than 100 square feet.
Using two different methods, Professor Byers and his team have estimated that if the space industry continues with its current practices, there is a 6 to 10 percent chance of one or more falling space debris falling from orbit.
The team notes that this does not include potential mass casualty incidents from worst-case scenarios such as debris falling onto an aircraft in flight.
Furthermore, the analysis showed that, given the distribution of typical satellite orbits, the risk of falling space debris is disproportionately greater in the Southern Hemisphere, even though most spacefaring countries are located in the Northern Hemisphere.
For example, the team notes that the latitudes of Southern Hemisphere cities Dhaka, Jakarta and Lagos are nearly three times more likely to be hit by missile debris than Beijing, Moscow or New York.
“The risk has so far been assessed on a per-launch basis, which gives people the impression that the risk is so small that it can be safely ignored,” said University of British Columbia astronomer and co-author Professor Aaron Polley. The cumulative risk is not low. It has not been reported.” So far, there have been no injuries … But do we wait for that moment and then respond, especially when it comes to human life, or do we try to stand up to it? “
Although no one was injured by falling space debris, there have been incidents of property damage, including damage to two villages in Côte d’Ivoire in 2020.
This happened because parts of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket, which is 39 feet long, fell from the sky.
There are ways to reduce the risks posed by space debris, both now in orbit and those that may be generated in the future.
Several space agencies and private companies are developing “space killers” that can be used to safely launch orbital debris from uninhabited areas.
Fully reusable rockets, such as the Super Heavy Booster rocket developed by SpaceX, can also be developed as part of its spacecraft.
In addition to missiles, some large operational satellites also pose a future challenge to ensure safe de-orbiting. This includes the 400-ton International Space Station, which is expected to be decommissioned after 2030.
Earlier this year, NASA revealed plans to develop a space tug to safely launch an orbital station over the South Pacific Ocean. A similar strategy would likely be used to de-orbit the 12-tonne Hubble Space Telescope, which itself cannot be maneuvered.
Much of the space station will burn up after re-entry, but there will still be a lot of debris and it could be an amazing sight for anyone looking up at the night sky in its vicinity.
The space station is scheduled to return to Earth in January 2031.