A large chunk of space debris, weighing perhaps several tons, is currently in an uncontrolled reentry phase (it is space that speaks of “uncontrollable”), and some of it is expected to crash into Earth in the middle. over the next few weeks.
If that isn’t worrisome enough, it’s impossible to predict exactly where the coins that don’t burn in the atmosphere might end up. Given the object’s orbit, the possible landing points are anywhere in a band of latitudes “a little further north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and as far south as southern Chile. and Wellington, New Zealand ”.
The debris is part of the Long March 5B rocket which recently successfully launched China’s first module for its proposed space station. The incident comes about a year after another similar Chinese rocket fell to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean, but not before it left a trail of debris in the African nation of Cote d’Ivoire .
At the time, experts noted that it was one of the largest human-made debris to fall on Earth. We can’t say for sure what fate awaits this last piece of space debris.
Australia already holds the record in the “who can be hit by the largest piece of space debris” category. In 1979, the US 77-ton SkyLab space station disintegrated over Western Australia, scattering the area around the southern coastal town of Hope with fragments.
At the time, the event was greeted with enthusiasm and lightness, and many pieces were put together by space enthusiasts. The county’s Hope Council fined NASA for rubbish, and a US radio station then raised enough money to pay off the debt.
While there have been no fatalities or serious injuries of those affected by space debris, there is no reason to believe that it is not dangerous. Just a year before SkyLab’s demise, a Soviet remote sensing (spy) satellite, Cosmos 954, plunged into an arid region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, spreading radioactive debris over several hundred square kilometers.
With the Cold War at its height, the sensitivity of nuclear technology aboard the Cosmos 954 led to an unfortunate delay in locating and cleaning up the wreckage, due to mistrust between the Soviet Union and the effort Canada-US recovery.
The clean-up operation lasted for months but only located part of the debris. Canada billed the Soviet Union over C $ 6 million, after spending millions more, but was ultimately paid only C $ 3 million.
Since the late 1970s, pieces of space debris have regularly fallen to Earth and are increasingly concerned. Of course, over 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 who escapes the extremely long chances, the consequences would be truly dire.
The fact that Cosmos 954 did not land in Toronto or Quebec, where the radioactive fallout would have required a full-scale evacuation, was just a quirk of fate. In 2007, debris from a Russian satellite narrowly missed a Chilean airliner flying between Santiago and Auckland. As we send more objects into space, the chances of a catastrophic landing will only increase.
Who pays to clean up the mess, anyway?
International law establishes a compensation regime that would apply in many circumstances of damage on Earth, as well as when satellites collide in space. The 1972 Liability Convention, a United Nations treaty, imposes liability on “launching States” for damage caused by their space objects, which includes an absolute liability regime when they crash into Earth as debris.
In the case of the Long March 5B, this would impose potential liability on China. The treaty has only been invoked once before (for the Cosmos 954 incident) and therefore cannot be considered a strong deterrent. However, it is likely to come into play in the future in a more crowded space environment and with more uncontrolled reentries. Of course, this legal framework only applies after the damage has occurred.
Other international guidelines for debris mitigation and the long-term sustainability of space activities set out voluntary standards intended to limit the likelihood of collisions in space and to minimize disruption of satellites during or after their missions.
Some satellites may be moved into cemetery orbit at the end of their operational life. While this works well for certain specific orbits at relatively high altitude, it is impractical and dangerous to start moving the vast majority of satellites between orbital planes. Most of the millions of space debris are destined to either orbit uncontrollably for many years or, if in low Earth orbit, gradually descend to Earth, hopefully burning in the atmosphere before the contact with the mainland.
A globally coordinated space traffic management system will be essential to avoid collisions that would cause satellites to lose control, drop them into orbit or fall back to Earth.
Full tracking of the movements and functionality of each satellite is even more difficult than it sounds, as it would inevitably force countries to be willing to share information that they often currently consider to be confidential national security matters.
But, at the end of the day, global cooperation is essential if we are to avoid an unsustainable future for our space activities. In the meantime, don’t forget to look up every now and then – you might just spot some of the most spectacular junk on the planet.
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