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Scientists warn: Chances of death by Space Debris are a ‘frightening’ 10%

There is a genuine danger of humans on Earth getting struck by falling space debris as space travel grows more and more prevalent, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC). An assessment of the likelihood that falling rocket and satellite components may penetrate the atmosphere and injure humans during the next 10 years was published in Nature Astronomy.

The scientists calculated the locations of rocket wreckage and other space trash when they fall down to Earth using mathematical modeling of the angles and orbits of rocket components in orbit and the population size below them, as well as 30 years’ worth of prior satellite data.

According to the study’s conclusions, there is a one in ten possibilities that space debris may cause one or more fatalities over the course of the next ten years. According to co-author of the research and astronomer at UBC Aaron Boley, “The absence of a significant catastrophe has caused many people to be less anxious about it.”

The calculating team emphasized that the 10% number was a “conservative estimate” and that every uncontrolled re-entry distributes fatal debris across a ten square meter region.

The researchers also identified the areas with the highest probability of these casualties. According to the research, the likelihood of a rocket body landing in the latitudes of Jakarta in Indonesia, Dhaka in Bangladesh, or Lagos in Nigeria is around three times higher than it is at the latitudes of New York in the US, Beijing in China, or Moscow in Russia.

Space Debris
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The paper recommends that “those national governments whose citizens are at danger” urge that “major spacefaring nations act, together, to compel regulated rocket reentries, impose substantial repercussions for non-compliance, and thereby remove the hazards for everyone.”

So far, it has been believed that there is very little chance that satellite and rocket debris would affect the surface of the Earth or aviation traffic in the atmosphere. The majority of research on this kind of space debris has been on the danger posed by retired satellites in orbit that might interfere with the safe operation of operational satellites or harm already-existing infrastructure like the JWST.

However, as more people enter the rocket launch industry, “casualty expectations” also grow.

Scientists advise taking action to regulate the re-entry of junk into Earth’s atmosphere in order to lessen this danger. For instance, spacecraft may be “passivated,” in which case any remaining energy is burned up rather than retained once the mission is over. In addition, satellites may be set up to go into low-Earth orbit when they are no longer needed, where they will burn up.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are two private firms that are contributing to this endeavor by creating reusable rockets that can land instead of being dropped into the ocean or somewhere else.

While the UN released a set of Space Junk Mitigation Standards in 2010, which were then updated in 2018, the ESA is preparing a mission to try to gather and remove space debris using a four-armed robot. However, as the scientists of the current research point out, they are only recommendations and as such are not obligatory on any party. They also do not provide instructions on how mitigation measures are to be carried out or managed.

Source: E&T

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Written by Alex Bruno

Freelance space writer Alex Bruno specializes in covering China's quickly expanding space industry. In 2021, he started writing for SpaceXMania. He also contributes to publications including SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, and New Scientist. When Alex was a small child, he first experienced the space bug after seeing Voyager photographs of alien planets in our solar system. When not in space, Alex likes to go trail jogging in the Finnish countryside.

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