(ORDO NEWS) — Astronomers have calculated that there is a 10 percent chance of falling victim to a rocket body crash that makes an uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
At the same time, the greatest risk falls not on the space powers, but on the countries of the Global South, such as Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria.
Uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere of large fragments of launch vehicles, near-Earth telescopes or space stations can cause damage to human settlements, as bodies can fall to Earth anywhere along the flight path.
This happened in May 2020, when debris from the 18-ton stage of the Long March 5B launch vehicle hit two villages in Côte d’Ivoire.
A year later, another similar stage fell into the Indian Ocean. Both cases were the heaviest objects that entered the atmosphere uncontrollably since the burning of the Salyut-7 station in 1991.
At the same time, at least one victim of a rocket fragment is known – a fragment of a Delta II launch vehicle fell on Lottie Williams in January 1997.
A team of astronomers led by Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia has published the results of a human risk assessment of the uncontrolled re-entry of spent launch vehicle bodies using data from rocket launches and bodies in Earth orbit.
In 2020, more than 60 percent of low Earth orbit launches resulted in a large rocket fragment in Earth orbit that could remain there for days, months, or even years. Between May 4, 1992 and May 5, 2022, more than 1,500 launch vehicle bodies deorbited.
Of these, for more than 70 percent of objects, the descent was uncontrolled. Assuming that the missile body is capable of causing damage over an area of about 10 square meters, then the probability of having one or more victims in a decade is about 10 percent.
Scientists suggest that many of the rocket bodies making uncontrolled re-entry are associated with launches into geostationary orbits located near the equator.
As a result, the cumulative risk to humans is much higher in states of the Global South, such as Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria, compared to the major space powers that host these launches.
The risk is exacerbated by population poverty, which makes many buildings in the Global South less durable, as well as an increase in the number of rocket launches and the population of the Earth.
To reduce the risks, the researchers propose to actively use means of controlled entry into the atmosphere, such as engines, and develop uniform standards for controlling the amount of space debris for all countries conducting rocket launches.
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