One large piece of space debris, possibly weighing several tons, is currently in an uncontrolled re-entry phase (that’s space-speak for “out of control”), and pieces of it are expected to crash to Earth in the next few weeks.
As if this weren’t troubling enough, it’s impossible to predict exactly where the pieces that don’t burn up in the atmosphere will land. Given the object’s orbit, the possible landing points are somewhere in a band of latitudes “slightly farther north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.”
Elevation change of the Long March 5B rocket, now in an uncontrolled descent back to Earth. orbit.ing-now.com
The debris is part of the Long March 5B rocket that recently successfully launched China’s first module for its planned space station. The incident occurred about a year after a similar Chinese rocket crashed and landed in the Atlantic Ocean, but not before it reportedly left a trail of debris in the African nation of Cote d’Ivoire.
At that time, experts determined that it was one of the largest pieces of man-made debris to ever fall to Earth. We cannot say with certainty what fate awaits this last piece of space debris.
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Garbage from space
Australia already holds the record in the “who gets hit by the biggest piece of space junk” category. In 1979, the 77-ton U.S. SkyLab space station disintegrated over Western Australia, littering the area around the southern coastal town of Esperance with fragments.
At that time, the event was met with excitement and a sense of lightheartedness, and many pieces were collected by space enthusiasts. The Esperance City Council frivolously fined NASA for littering, and a U.S. radio station later raised enough money to settle the debt.
Rocket Skylab artifacts at the Esperance Museum.
Parts of Skylab are now on display at a local museum in the Western Australia region. James Shrimpton/AAP Image
Although there have been no deaths or serious injuries from people being hit by space debris, that’s no reason to think it’s not dangerous. Just a year before SkyLab’s demise, a Soviet remote sensing (spy) satellite, Cosmos 954, crashed into a barren region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, scattering radioactive debris over several hundred square miles.
At peak Cold War times, the sensitivity of the nuclear technology aboard Cosmos 954 led to an unfortunate delay in locating and cleaning up the wreckage due to mistrust between the Soviet Union and Canadian-American recovery efforts.
The cleanup effort took months but was only able to locate a portion of the wreckage. Canada billed the Soviet Union more than C$6 million and spent millions more, but ultimately received only C$3 million.
Continue reading Scrap or treasure? Much space debris is junk, but some is valuable heritage
Since the late 1970s, pieces of space debris have been falling to Earth on a regular basis and are viewed with increasing concern. Of course, more than 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans, and only a tiny fraction of the remaining 30% is covered by your home. But for anyone running afoul of that extremely high ratio, the consequences would be truly catastrophic.
It was just a quirk of fate that Cosmos 954 didn’t land on Toronto or Quebec City, where radioactive fallout would have required widespread evacuation. In 2007, debris from a Russian satellite narrowly missed a Chilean passenger plane en route from Santiago to Auckland. The more objects we send into space, the greater the likelihood of a disastrous crash landing.
Read more : Two satellites narrowly escaped a head-on collision. How close were they to disaster?
Who actually pays to clean up the mess?
International law provides a compensation scheme that applies in many cases of damage on Earth, but also in collisions of satellites in space. The 1972 Liability Convention, a UN treaty, imposes liability on “launching states” for damage caused by their space objects, which includes an absolute liability regime if they fall to Earth as debris.
In the case of Long March 5B, this would impose potential liability on China. The treaty has been invoked only once so far (for