Scientists have calculated the probability that the fallen space debris will kill a person

(ORDO NEWS) — The chance of someone being killed by space debris falling from the sky may seem ridiculously small. After all, no one has died from such an accident, although there have been cases of injuries and damage to property.

But as we launch more and more satellites, rockets and probes into space, shouldn’t we start taking risk more seriously?

Every minute of every day, a piece of debris rains down on us from outer space, a danger we are almost completely unaware of.

Microscopic particles of asteroids and comets, penetrating through the atmosphere, imperceptibly settle on the Earth‘s surface, annually forming about 40,000 tons of dust.

While not a problem for us, such debris can wreak havoc on a spacecraft as was recently reported on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Sometimes a larger sample arrives in the form of a meteorite, and maybe once every 100 years or so, a body tens of meters in diameter manages to break through the atmosphere to dig out a crater.

And, fortunately, very rarely, kilometer. Objects of this size can float to the surface, causing death and destruction, as evidenced by the absence of dinosaurs roaming the Earth today.

These are examples of natural space debris, the uncontrolled arrival of which is unpredictable and more or less evenly distributed around the globe.

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 inclinations and orbits of rocket parts in space and the population density below them, as well as 30 years of satellite data, the authors calculated where rocket debris and other pieces of space debris land as they fall back to Earth.

They found that there was a small but significant risk of re-hitting parts in the coming decade. But this is more likely to happen over southern latitudes than over northern ones.

In fact, the study has calculated that rocket bodies are about three times more likely to land at the latitudes of Jakarta in Indonesia, Dhaka in Bangladesh, or Lagos in Nigeria than they are in New York in the US, Beijing in China.

The authors also calculated the “expectancy of accidents” – the risk to human life – over the next decade as a result of an unguided rocket re-entry. Assuming that each re-entry scatters deadly debris over an area of ​​ten square meters, they found that there is, on average, a 10 percent chance of one or more casualties over the next decade.

To date, the likelihood that debris from satellites and rockets could cause damage to the Earth’s surface (or air traffic in the atmosphere) is considered negligible.

Most of the research on such space debris has focused on the risk posed in orbit. non-operational satellites that may interfere with the safe operation of operational satellites. Unused fuel and batteries also lead to explosions in orbit, resulting in additional waste.

But as the number of rocket launch companies increases and moves from government to private enterprise, it is highly likely that the number of accidents both in space and on Earth, such as the one that followed the launch of China’s Long March 5b will also increase.

The new study warns that the 10 percent figure is thus a conservative estimate.

What can be done

There are a number of technologies that allow you to fully control the re-entry of garbage into the atmosphere, but their implementation is costly. For example, a spacecraft can be “passivated”, with unused energy (such as propellant or batteries) being consumed rather than being stored after the spacecraft’s life span ends.

The choice of orbit for a satellite can also reduce the chance of debris being generated. A failed satellite can be programmed to go into low Earth orbit, where it will burn up.

There are also attempts to launch reusable rockets, which, for example, have been demonstrated by SpaceX and are being developed by Blue Origin.

They create a lot less debris, although some of it will be paint and metal shavings as they return to Earth in a controlled manner.

Many agencies take risks seriously. The European Space Agency is planning a mission to capture and remove space debris using a four-armed robot.

In 2010, the United Nations, through the Office for Outer Space Affairs, issued a set of Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which were updated in 2018.

However, as the authors of the new study note, these are just guidelines. , not international law, and does not provide details on how mitigation actions should be implemented or monitored.

The study argues that advances in technology and more thoughtful mission design will reduce the rate of uncontrolled re-entry of a spacecraft into the atmosphere. garbage, reducing the risk of danger around the world. It states that “unguided rocket re-entry is a collective action problem; solutions exist, but each launching state must make them.”

The demand for governments to act in concert is not unprecedented, as shown in the ban on ozone depleting CFC chemicals.

But unfortunately, this kind of action usually requires a major event with significant consequences for the northern hemisphere before action can be taken. And changes in international protocols and conventions take time.


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