Rocket debris can fall on our heads, says study

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Rocket debris can fall on our heads, says study

< p class="sc-v64krj-0 knjbxw">Computer representation of debris in Earth's orbit, produced by the European Space Agency.

Within the next decade, rocket debris in orbit has about a 10% chance of killing or seriously injuring at least one person when it falls back to Earth, according to a new study. Researchers call on the international community to tackle this problem before it has dramatic consequences.

When launched into space, rockets break up into multiple stages and some of those pieces are redirected in a controlled way back to Earth, says Aaron Boley, the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Others, however, remain in orbit and may fall back into the atmosphere, adds the professor in UBC's Department of Physics and Astronomy and co-director of the Outer Space Institute, a network of experts on the sustainable development of space.

We've been lucky so far, no one has been hurt, says Aaron Boley, who participated in the study, published last week in the journal Nature Astronomy.< /p>

Last year, the uncontrolled return to the atmosphere of a piece of Chinese rocket created lively speculation, before it disintegrated above the Indian Ocean .

Aaron Mackee captured video of the lights falling over Vancouver.

A few weeks earlier, remnants of these spacecraft crashed into a field in Washington State. Residents across southern British Columbia and across the border were able to see the light beam caused by their re-entry into the atmosphere.

The usual rule is that launching a rocket and its components must have less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of killing or injuring someone. But that's just the risk of an individual flare, says Aaron Boley.

“As an individual, it's unlikely that you be directly affected. But the risk that a family is somewhere in the world is not negligible. »

— Study co-author Aaron Aaron Boley, Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy at UBC

To assess the risks of these unplanned returns to the population, the group of researchers from the University of British Columbia relied on reentry rates of objects in orbit over the past 30 years and data on the world's population.

Using two different calculation methods, they determined that these uncontrolled returns to Earth have between a 6% and a 10% chance of causing at least one injury or death within a decade. What you have to keep in mind is that it's around 10%, not 1% or less, points out Aaron Boley.

These estimates are conservative, however, because the researchers used a stable rate of return of rockets to the atmosphere over the next decade. However, this rate should increase as more rockets are sent, says Aaron Boley.

The study also doesn't take into account that this debris can hit planes on its way back through the atmosphere, which could increase the risk, according to Aaron Boley.

The group of researchers calls on world authorities to become aware of this risk and to impose the controlled return of rocket stages to Earth, despite the increased costs that this will entail.

According to the study, some countries in the southern Northern Hemisphere and northern Southern Hemisphere are more at risk of being affected by this debris, due to their larger population. important, their positioning relative to the equator and the distribution of satellites in orbit.

Regions such as Jakarta, in Indonesia, Mexico City, in Mexico, or even Bogotá, in Colombia, thus have at least three times more risk of seeing landed pieces of rockets in their regions than cities which are at the same latitudes as Washington. , in the United States, Beijing, China, or Moscow, Russia, the document reads.

In 2020, rocket debris landed on a village in Côte d'Ivoire, causing damage to some buildings, the study points out.

Most of these rockets are sent by developed countries. It also becomes a North/South issue. It's fascinating and very serious, says Ram Jakhu, professor and researcher in space law at McGill University, who also calls on the authorities to realize the extent of the problem.

Ram Jakhu confirms that States and private companies must be held responsible for what they send into space, although the trafficking of objects in orbit has already reached a tipping point, he said.

More than 27,000 pieces of space debris already orbit Earth, according to NASA data.

Even if we stop sending rockets into space, the debris problem will not be solved. They will continue to collide with each other and create more debris. Some of these pieces will fall back to earth, he says.

Satellites can be damaged by space debris.

Some service-critical satellites have already been damaged after being hit by these objects, he says. This is not science fiction.

Ram Jakhu argues that there are no specific international rules on in-orbit traffic management. The national regulations that some countries have put in place are not carefully followed, he said.

Governments don't take the threat seriously, because the public isn't really informed about the risks, and states rely too much on private companies, he admits.

“If my car breaks down while I'm driving it, should I leave it on the side of the road?” It is my responsibility not to leave her there to prevent her from causing problems for others.

— Ram Jakhu, professor and researcher in space law at McGill University

The government must make me pay, hold me accountable, these rules are imperative, he says.

We don't want any accidents. If there is an accident, the response will probably be very quick. But I hope we will take care of it before that happens, adds Aaron Boley.

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