Space debris: Could it land on your doorstep?

Space debris: Could it land on your doorstep?

Our planet's atmosphere is a bustling thoroughfare for satellites and myriad debris fragments. With the increasing accumulation of space detritus, albeit a remote possibility, comes the heightened risk of these objects making an uninvited return to Earth.

The solitary case on record of an individual being struck by falling space debris belongs to Lottie Williams, a resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1997, she was unexpectedly hit on the shoulder by a hand-sized fragment believed to have originated from a Delta II rocket. Miraculously, she survived and managed to report the incident to authorities. 

Considering this singular event, the risk appears minimal. However, since 1997, space launches have surged dramatically. In 2023 alone, there were a staggering 211 successful launches, a 19% increase from the previous year, accompanied by 2,900 satellites orbiting Earth, marking a 17% uptick. It's akin to a celestial traffic congestion, inevitably raising the statistical likelihood of collision. 

Presently, the odds of an individual being struck by space debris hover around one in a trillion. Simply put, you're more likely to win the lottery than to encounter an ISS fragment landing on your doorstep. Yet, reality occasionally delivers surprises, as illustrated by a recent incident involving Alejandro Otero.

The curious case of Alejandro Otero

Residing in Naples, Florida, Alejandro Otero experienced an unexpected visit from the skies on March 8, 2024. A 900-gram object, remnants of a 2.5-tonne battery pallet jettisoned by the ISS in 2021, crashed through his home's roof, traversing both floors.

"Hello. Looks like one of those pieces missed Ft Myers and landed in my house in Naples. Tore through the roof and went thru 2 floors. Almost hit my son. Can you please assist with getting NASA to connect with me? I've left messages and emails without a response.", he wrote on Twitter.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the origin of this space debris, speculation quickly arose linking it to NASA, particularly after the agency's announcement at 2:29 pm regarding the uncontrolled atmospheric entry of a massive 2.5-ton pallet of debris, comparable in size to a minibus. This pallet was observed following a south-north trajectory over the Gulf of Mexico.

Although NASA initially asserted on March 8 that this particular debris, despite its deviation from a conventional trajectory, would disintegrate upon atmospheric entry, reality proved otherwise. Contrary to this optimistic forecast, other experts held divergent views. Prior to the event, the Aerospatiale Corporation had cautioned about the inherent risks associated with such a procedure.

According to their researchers, between 20 to 40% of the object was anticipated to survive re-entry, as the extreme temperatures encountered during descent would prevent complete destruction. Shortly before re-entry, the European Space Agency echoed concerns about the safety implications of this atmospheric return. 

Even though the chances of such events are exceedingly rare, they serve as poignant reminders of humanity's influence on our planet and its atmosphere. With our ventures into space intensifying, it's crucial to take urgent action to manage the growing swarm of orbital debris enveloping our planet.