How Concerned Should We Be About Falling Space Debris?

space junk

Welcome to this week’s Intelligence Brief… recently, a series of incidents involving space debris reentry have caused heightened concerns about the potential dangers of objects falling from orbit. In our analysis, we’ll be looking at 1) recent incidents involving large pieces of space debris falling to Earth, 2) what current data says about the potential risks associated with space debris, 3) damage that has recently been caused to property resulting from uncontrolled reentry of space objects, and 4) why some scientists aren’t so optimistic about current efforts to mitigate dangers from falling space junk.

Quote of the Week  

“Tackling the problem of space debris is one of humankind’s greatest environmental challenges, but it is also perhaps the one that is the least known.”

– Dr. Hugh Lewis

Latest News: In recent articles at The Debrief, new research shows SpaceX’s Starlink satellites can cause extreme flaring, confusing airline pilots and complicating UAP tracking. Elsewhere, Elon Musk and his team at Neuralink have asked the public for help with a challenging issue the company is facing: data compression. All of our recent stories can be found at the end of this week’s newsletter. 

Podcasts: In podcasts this week, on The Debrief Weekly Report, Kenna and Steph dive into the lore behind Star Wars. Elsewhere on The Micah Hanks Program, we look at archaeological discoveries that are causing many experts to revisit old perplexing questions about cosmic-scale events that occurred long ago, and some of the earliest arrivals in North America. You can subscribe to all The Debrief’s podcasts on our Podcasts Page.

Video News: On the latest episode of Rebelliously Curious, Chrissy Newton is joined by Chantelle Baier, founder of 4SPACE, for a discussion about how brands of all sizes, along with government agencies, can meaningfully contribute to human space exploration while addressing Earth’s issues. Be sure to check out other great content from The Debrief on our official YouTube Channel.

With that all behind us, it’s time to turn our attention toward recent incidents that are raising concerns about the dangers associated with falling space debris, and what can be done about the problem.

A Space Object Crashes in the Appalachian Mountains

Last week, a mysterious object discovered in the mountains of Western North Carolina by a local maintenance worker was revealed to be debris from space linked to a recent SpaceX mission.

The saga is believed to have begun sometime in the early morning hours of May 22, when the strange-looking object discovered by maintenance worker Justin Clontz along a scenic hiking trail owned by The Glamping Collective likely made its way to Earth.

“We don’t know what it is,” Clontz told local news outlet WLOS, who were the first to report on the discovery. “We just know that it’s not from up here.”

On May 24th, The Debrief was the first to report that the debris appeared to belong to a portion of a SpaceX Crew Dragon “trunk” that survived reentry. After noticing similarities between the object recovered in North Carolina and a similar object retrieved a few weeks ago by a farmer in Saskatchewan, we shared images of the suspected debris with astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who subsequently confirmed to The Debrief and in postings on X that the object’s final resting place matched the reentry path of a Crew-7 Dragon mission’s reentry path.

A Cause for Concern?

SpaceX has not yet commented on the incident, although similar occurrences of debris reentry have been reported in recent years. In August 2022, debris from a Dragon spacecraft was recovered in Australia, and in April 2021, SpaceX debris from a Falcon 9 rocket landed on a farm in Central Washington.

Long March
Footage of the debris from from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reentry in March 2021.

The FAA has stated that such debris usually burns up in the atmosphere over the ocean, posing minimal risk to public safety. However, the repeated recovery of SpaceX debris in recent weeks suggests that materials from the Dragon trunk often survive reentry in substantial pieces. So, should the public be alarmed about the growing amount of space debris that appears to be making its way back to Earth?

According to the Aerospace Corporation, an independent, nonprofit corporation that performs technical analyses and assessments related to the aerospace industry, the risk posed to individuals from reentering debris is still extremely low.

“It is estimated to be less than a one in one trillion chance that a particular person will be injured by falling space debris,” the corporation states on a FAQ page on its website. “By comparison, the risk of being hit by lightning is one in 1.4 million, and the risk that someone in the U.S. will be killed in a hurricane is about one in six million.”

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Despite assurances that death from falling space junk remains relatively unlikely, last week’s discovery in North Carolina marks only the latest in an ongoing series of incidents where space debris has survived reentry. Some of these incidents also convey the potential dangers associated with such incidents.

In March, a home in Naples, Florida, was damaged when a piece of debris fell from space and struck the residence of Alejandro Otero.

The object that struck Otero’s home last month (Credit: NASA).

Josh Finch, a spokesperson with the Space Operations Mission Directorate, told The Debrief at the time that “NASA collected an item in cooperation with the homeowner and will analyze the object at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as soon as possible to determine its origin.”

A few weeks later, NASA’s investigation determined the debris had belonged to “a stanchion from the NASA flight support equipment used to mount the batteries on the cargo pallet.” The object was constructed of Inconel, an alloy of nickel containing chromium and iron, and weighed approximately 1.6 pounds.

“NASA remains committed to responsibly operating in low Earth orbit, and mitigating as much risk as possible to protect people on Earth when space hardware must be released,” the agency’s statement read.

More of a Concern Than We Realize?

Although many experts and groups continue to emphasize the remoteness of dangers falling space debris may pose to anyone on the ground, not everyone is so optimistic.

According to the findings of one 2022 study, there could be as much as a six to ten percent chance that serious injury or death may result from space debris reentry sometime within the next decade.

“These risks have long been treated as negligible, but the number of rocket bodies abandoned in orbit is growing, while rocket bodies from past launches continue to reenter the atmosphere due to gas drag,” the study’s authors wrote, noting that casualty expectation and overall risk to human life was “disproportionately borne by populations in the Global South, with major launching states exporting risk to the rest of the world.”

“Those national governments whose populations are being put at risk should demand that major spacefaring states act, together, to mandate controlled rocket reentries, create meaningful consequences for non-compliance and thus eliminate the risks for everyone,” the study’s authors concluded.

Although most space debris is certainly likely to burn up during reentry, recent events clearly show that this isn’t always the case. With an ever-increasing number of government and commercial space operations placing material into orbit, it seems inevitable that the potential risks will also increase over time.

In very simple terms, concerns about falling debris are indeed warranted, and although the risk may remain low for now, that may not always be the case. We can only hope that efforts to mitigate such problems will be taken in the near term, rather than waiting until the dangers associated with uncontrolled reentries become more than just a potential hazard.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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