Calculated risk of death from falling space debris

Space debris poses a threat to satellites in orbit. Moreover, even the International Space Station performs orbital maneuvers to evade debris, because a collision with them would pose a serious danger to the crew. But is this garbage dangerous for people on Earth? This problem was studied by an article published in Nature Astronomy.

Previously, the dangerous potential of satellite and rocket debris for people on Earth was considered insignificant. But as the number of launches into orbit has increased due to the emergence of private space programs, the risk of accidents in space and the fall of old space satellites and rockets to the Earth’s surface has increased. Unused fuel and batteries also lead to explosions in orbit, creating additional pollution.

There is a 10 percent chance of one or more victims from space debris over the next decade. Photo: Unsplash

Using mathematical modeling of the orbits of rocket remains in space and the population density below them, the authors of the study estimated where large pieces of space debris fall when they return to Earth. Scientists have discovered that there is a small but deadly risk of accidents from falling space debris in the next decade. Moreover, residents of the Southern Hemisphere will be at greater risk than those of the Northern Hemisphere. The study found that rocket shells are about three times more likely to fall in the latitudes of Jakarta in Indonesia, Dhaka in Bangladesh or Lagos in Nigeria than in New York in the USA, Beijing in China or London in the UK.

The authors also calculated the risk of people’s lives over the next decade as a result of uncontrolled rocket crashes. Assuming that each re-entry spreads deadly debris over an area of 10 km2, they found that there is a 10 percent chance of one or more casualties over the next decade.

How to prevent danger?

Many agencies take risks seriously. There are a number of technologies that allow control of the wreckage. But their use is too expensive. For example, the European Space Agency is planning a mission to attempt to capture and remove space debris using a special robot. 

Choosing an orbit for a satellite can also reduce the likelihood of hazardous debris formation. A spent satellite can be programmed to move in a lower Earth orbit, where it will simply burn up in the upper atmosphere. There are also attempts to launch reusable rockets that are actively used by SpaceX and are being developed by Blue Origin. They create much less garbage due to the reuse of the upper stages.

The study claims that advanced technologies and a more thoughtful design of missions will reduce uncontrolled pollution of the orbit by space debris, reducing the risk of danger around the world. There are solutions, but every state launching a rocket must adopt and implement them. But, unfortunately, changes to international protocols and conventions take a lot of time.

Earlier we reported how space debris is used in hybrid warfare in space.

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