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Houston, we have a problem

1 Jul 2024

We all know that the space immediately around Earth is becoming increasingly filled with space junk.

Some commentators predict that it's only a matter of time before the Kessler effect/syndrome kicks in and the number of pieces explodes by orders of magnitude due to collisions.

Whilst it would be wise to show concern for this, there's perhaps another problem rearing its ugly head that poses far more of a danger for us on the ground below.

I'm talking about the dangers of falling space junk.

For decades we've been told that stuff falling from orbit will simply burn up harmlessly above our heads, creating at most, a glorious light-show in the sky.

The heat of re-entry has created a very convenient way to dispose of stuff as it de-orbits such that purposely deorbiting satellites has become the final part of their lifecycle. It's far better to have them vaporised into harmless dust than to trigger the Kessler effect... right?

Well it may not be as simple as we thought.

According to a story on Arstechnica, NASA and SpaceX misjudged the risks from reentering space junk.

In just the past few months we've seen surprising examples of space junk suriving the re-entry process and reaching the surface of the planet, with potentially devastating results.

Not only was a home in Naples, Florida struck by a large chunk of Inconel from a pallet of worn out batteries ejected from the ISS but part of a SpaceX Dragon craft eventually came to rest beside a hiking track in North America. In either case, if someone had been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, lives could have been lost.

I find it so hypocritical that people playing with small plastic drones are being vilified as endangering the public safety with those sub-250g toys whilst, at exactly the same time, massive chunks of space junk weighing many Kg are falling from the sky without warning and seemingly without any laws being broken.

The big question now must be "how do we keep earth-orbit clear of junk without endangering those on the ground below?"

Keeping stuff small is one way I guess but although there's a shift towards smaller satellites where possible, the reality is that some of the stuff we hurl into space is getting bigger, much bigger. Look at SpaceX's starship for instance -- even though that's supposed to be reusable they've yet to fly one more than once.

Also, as our communcations needs become ever-more complex and demanding, chances are that key satellites will be bigger and heavier than before. Some things, such as solar arrays, gyros and positioning thrusters can't really be made any smaller than they already are.

Of course the chances of being killed by a piece of falling space junk are remarkably small, almost as small as the chance of being killed by a sub-250g drone so there's no need to swap your tinfoil hat for a hard-hat just yet.

However, it should always be remembered, what goes up may eventually come down, as some Chinese rocket engineers discovered recently when a large booster, trailing clouds of toxic gas, fell near a village last month.

Just buy a lotto ticket in the comfortable certainty that you're more likely to win the Powerball jackpot than you are to be killed by a piece of falling space junk -- at least for the time being.

Carpe Diem folks!

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