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Scientists calculate the risk of someone being killed by space junk

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The odds of someone being killed by space junk falling from the sky may seem ridiculously slim. After all, no one has yet died from such an accident, although there have been cases of injury and material damage. But given that we are launching an increasing number of satellites, rockets and probes into space, should we start taking the risk more seriously?

A new study, published in Natural Astronomyestimates the probability of causality of falling rocket parts in the next ten years.

Debris falls on us from space every minute of every day – a danger of which we are almost completely unaware. The microscopic particles from asteroids and comets whirl through the atmosphere to settle undetected on the Earth’s surface, amounting to about 40,000 tons of dust per year.

Greetings, Humanoids

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While this isn’t a problem for us, such debris can damage spacecraft – as was the case recently reported for the James Webb Space Telescope. Every now and then a bigger monster arrives as a meteoriteand maybe once every 100 years or so, a body tens of feet manages to drive through the atmosphere to excavate a crater.

And – fortunately very rarely – kilometer-sized objects can reach the surface and cause death and destruction – as evidenced by the lack of dinosaurs roaming the Earth today. These are examples of natural space debris, the uncontrolled arrival of which is unpredictable and spread more or less evenly around the world.

However, the new study examined the uncontrolled arrival of artificial space debris, such as spent rocket stages, associated with rocket launches and satellites. Using mathematical modeling of the slopes and orbits of rocket parts in space and the population density beneath them, as well as 30 years of past satellite data, the authors estimate where rocket debris and other pieces of space debris end up when they fall back to Earth.

They found that there is a small, but significant, risk of parts re-entering in the next decade. But this is more likely in southern latitudes than northern ones. In fact, the study estimated that missile bodies are about three times more likely to land at the latitudes of Jakarta in Indonesia, Dhaka in Bangladesh or Lagos in Nigeria than those of New York in the US, Beijing in China or Moscow in Russia.

The authors also calculated a “casualty expectation” — the risk to human life — over the next decade due to uncontrolled missile reentry. Assuming that each return spreads deadly debris over an area of ​​ten square meters, they found there is an average 10% chance of one or more casualties in the next decade.

Until now, the potential of debris from satellites and missiles to cause damage to the Earth’s surface (or to air traffic’s atmosphere) has been considered negligible. Most studies of such space debris have focused on the risk generated in orbit by defunct satellites that could interfere with the safe operation of functioning satellites. Unused fuel and batteries also lead to explosions in orbit that generate additional waste.

But as the number of rocket launch applications grows – and shifts from government to private enterprise – it is highly likely that the number of accidents, both in space and on Earth, such as the number of accidents following the launch of the rocket. Chinese long march 5b, will also increase. The new study cautions that the 10% figure is therefore a conservative estimate.

What can be done

There is a range of technologies that make it very possible to control debris re-entry, but they are expensive to implement. For example, spacecraft can be “passivated”, where unused energy (such as fuel or batteries) is consumed rather than stored once the spacecraft’s lifespan has expired.

The choice of orbit for a satellite can also reduce the chance of producing debris. A defunct satellite can be programmed to enter low Earth orbit where it will burn up.

Image of Saudi officials inspecting a crashed module in January 2001.