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Death by objects falling from space could be more likely than people realize

Researchers say governments should mandate rocket ‘junk’ be guided back

According to a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, there’s a six to 10 per cent chance rocket ‘junk’ may re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and could even severely injure or kill a human.

The study was a joint collaboration between professors in the university’s departments of political science and physics.

The researchers say governments need to take collective action to mandate rocket junk be guided safely back to Earth after use. They say such a mandate would inevitably increase the cost of launches but should be a necessary cost.

While the risk to any one person is very low — being struck and killed by space junk should not be high on your personal list of worries — the researchers still believe it is dangerous enough to warrant being addressed and easy enough to solve, albeit somewhat expensive.

“What we’re proposing is entirely feasible and there’s, therefore, no excuse for delaying action on this matter,” said Michael Byers, a professor of political science at UBC and the lead researcher on the project.

Technological advancements in space travel now include engines that can reignite as well as extra fuel which can aid in guiding debris to remote areas of the oceans. In addition to the potential threat that it poses to humans, space junk remaining in orbit can also cause significant property damage.

In 2020, a 12-metre long pipe fell from the sky and struck the Ivory Coast village of Mahounou, causing damage to local buildings.

As a vast nation, Canada is at an increased risk of being hit by debris.

In 1978, a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite, falling back to Earth, scattered potentially radioactive debris into the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The cleanup project that ensued, called ‘Operation Morning Light’, ended up costing nearly $14 million. Canada had originally sought $6 million from the Soviet Union but only ended up receiving $3 million.

Because of the Earth’s rotation, it is unlikely the nation launching a spacecraft will also be the one that suffers the consequences of its debris.

Despite most spacecraft being launched from the global north, the researchers found the global south disproportionately bears the risk of being struck by space junk because of the earth’s tilt and rotations.

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The study found the latitudes aligned with Jakarta, Dhaka and Lagos are approximately three times more likely to be struck by debris than those of New York, Moscow and Bejing.

Byers suggests following the model of international collaboration that took place after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 treaty that phased out the use of substances causing rapid ozone depletion.

“Both required some cost to change practice, but in response to new scientific analysis, there was a collective will to do so,” said Byers. “In both instances, they were complete successes.”

According to NASA, there are 27,000 pieces of orbital debris being tracked by the American government. However, “much more debris, too small to be tracked but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions, exists.”

Spacecraft and debris both travel at extremely high speeds (upwards of 25,000 km/h) so even a small piece of debris could create big problems, NASA indicates.

As of 2017, the United States had the most pieces of debris in orbit with 3,999. Russia was a close second, with 3,961 pieces of debris (including items from the Soviet Union).

Proportionally, China is the leading pollutor of space junk, with 7.5 pieces of debris objects per payload. The United States and Russia are responsible for 1.3 and 4.3 objects per payload, respectively.

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