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It Came From Space! Man-Made Objects That Crashed Back to Earth

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Most orbital debris is in low Earth orbit, where "what goes up must come down" — derelict satellites, spent rocket boosters, explosive bolt shrapnel, payload fairings, interstage structures, payload adapters, spin-up counterweights, and more. Most reentering debris is small and burns up on reentry. But some of it is large and survives reentry. Occasionally, people even find it. To date, no one is known to have been injured, and, statistically speaking, debris is most likely to fall over water. But it's really only a matter of time before someone does get hurt.

Here is a look at some of the more interesting man-made objects that have fallen from space.

Cosmos 954

The Soviet Union fielded an assortment of radar ocean reconnaissance spacecraft (RORSATs) powered not by solar arrays but by actual honest-to-gosh nuclear reactors. They were designed to eject their nuclear cores to a high, disposal orbit at the end of their lifetimes, but on at least one occasion, this did not happen. Cosmos 954's core was still on board when it reentered the atmosphere on January 24, 1978. Although another RORSAT with a similar predicament had wound up safely in the ocean, this one wasn't so lucky; highly radioactive debris was scattered across the Northwest Territories, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, Canada, on a 600 km path. The Soviets refused to acknowledge that any material had survived reentry until a joint US/Canadian recovery mission cleaned up the debris and billed the USSR more than six million Canadian dollars. (The USSR ultimately paid about half of that.) Most of the spacecraft's mass remained unaccounted for, however. This is a bit concerning since, of the 1% of fuel that was recovered, one fragment was so radioactive that a person holding it for a moment would receive a lethal dose.

Members of Operation Morning Light, wearing snowshoes and winter survival gear, use Geiger counters to locate debris.

Skylab

The most famous piece of space debris ever, this 69,000 kg space station had been built from an unused S-IVB upper stage from a Saturn V, and boosted into orbit by another Saturn V. Today, it holds the record for the third largest space station after the ISS and Mir. After consuming most of the remaining Apollo hardware, the station was abandoned, with the plan of sending the new Space Shuttle up to reboost it and periodically visit. The Sun had other ideas; solar activity puffed out the Earth's atmosphere, increasing drag, and Skylab fell from orbit largely uncontrolled on July 11, 1979. With the media and diplomatic channels awakened by the Cosmos 954 reentry, there was intense interest. NASA predicted 1 in 152 odds of striking a person. There was still some control over the spacecraft, so NASA attempted to control the reentry by adjusting the station's altitude. This worked, but the station took longer to burn than expected, and there was a 4% error in the calculation — it ended up hitting Australia, strewing debris across Western Australia southeast of Perth. It was the most massive object ever to reenter uncontrolled, tipping the scales at 85 tons. (The Mir space station was more massive, but made a controlled entry over the South Pacific.)


Fragment of Skylab, recovered from the crash site and displayed at the US Space and Rocket Center

Salyut 7

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union launched a series of space stations under the designation "Salyut." All of these heavy spacecraft eventually reentered, but the last of them (and the heaviest) was Salyut 7. Equipped with two docking ports to permit resupply and crew exchange, Salyut 7 had enjoyed a strong career starting in 1982. Near the end of its lifespan, an unmanned TKS spacecraft designated Cosmos 1686 arrived and docked to the station, expanding its pressurized volume and demonstrating the concept of modular stations in preparation for the launch of Mir the following year. In 1986, the first Mir crew made a brief trip to Salyut 7, the last to visit the station. It was then abandoned. On February 7, 1991, the station finally fell from orbit, reentering over Argentina and scattering debris near the town of Capitan Bermudez. With the TKS module attached, the combined system had a mass of 40,000 kg. Unlike its Salyut predecessors, its reentry was completely uncontrolled. More about the Salyut 7 debris, including the scientific analysis of a tank recovered from the crash site, is available here.

Delta II Upper Stage

Many upper stages have reentered through the years; in fact, rocket boosters constitute the majority of large space debris. Most are not observed, but many fragments have been found. In 1997, Ms. Lottie Williams of Tulsa, OK, was hit by a piece of one while she was out walking. It didn't injure her, and the piece was light and cool. It turned out to be fabric insulation from a Delta II rocket's upper stage, which had been launched in 1996 and floated derelict ever since. More of the debris was found downrange, in Texas. Williams is the only person definitively known to have been struck by a piece of reentering orbital debris. You can read more about Lottie Williams here, holding up her small scrap of insulation.


It could have been worse; this tank is from the same rocket, found downrange in Texas.

Columbia

February 1, 2003. STS-107 was Columbia's first flight in several years, having been sidelined while the other three Orbiters worked on ISS construction. She was scheduled to receive Discovery's Orbiter Docking System, so that she could take over missions while Discovery underwent a routine maintenance period. As she was aging, she was not expected to make many more flights; her last mission was tentatively placed for 2009, returning the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit. (More on that later.) The mission had been a complete success, and it was time to return home. Unbeknownst to NASA or the crew, a piece of foam insulation had punctured one of the reinforced carbon panels. During entry, hot plasma entered through this hole and melted through the aluminum ribs of the wing. The wing eventually tore away, and the entire vehicle rapidly broke up. Debris was scattered over hundreds of miles, and continues to be recovered to this day; last August, the continuing drought in Texas lowered the level of Lake Nacodoches sufficiently to reveal a tank from the fuel cell that provided Columbia with electrical power.


Recovered Columbia debris being identified, processed, and laid out for analysis by the accident investigation board.

Future Reentries

Low Earth orbit is full of objects, the vast majority inactive rocket parts, derelict spacecraft, and fragments. Reentries will keep on happening. The recently deactivated Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer has an estimated 1 in 1,000 chance of injuring a person. The Hubble Space Telescope has no means of returning to Earth under its own power; unless a robotic de-orbit system is developed in time, it will also return uncontrolled, with a 1 in 700 chance of injuring a person, largely due to its massive primary mirror.

Here's what's up there now, in low orbit and zoomed out to geosynchronous orbit. There's more going up all the time, so this will only get busier. Which one will come down next?



Cataloged objects in Low Earth Orbit and out to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit

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Space
Thanks to NASA, the Search for Habitable Worlds Just Got Easier
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NASA

New NASA research will make it easier to find the planets out there that can support life. Detailed in the The Astrophysical Journal, the new model can simulate atmospheric conditions in a more comprehensive way, taking circulation of the atmosphere and other factors into account.

The search for habitable planets requires detailed modeling. The scope of the universe is simply too vast for scientists to spend time searching planet-by-planet. Instead, they calculate factors that would allow a planet to support liquid water—a requirement to support life as we know it—using simulations. For instance, it has to be just far enough from its parent star that the atmosphere isn't so cold that bodies of water freeze, but not so hot that they evaporate.

When planets are losing their oceans due to evaporation, they enter what's called a "moist greenhouse" state as the water vapor rises into the stratosphere and the hydrogen atoms break apart from the oxygen atoms to escape into space, eventually resulting in the loss of the planet's oceans. The new research details how a star's radiation influences how the atmosphere of an exoplanet circulates and plays a role in creating that moist greenhouse state. 

Planets that orbit a low-mass star—the most common kind of star in our galaxy—would have to be closer to that star than the Earth is to the Sun in order to support life, since a low-mass star is cooler and dimmer. The gravity from such a close star would slow down the rotation of the planet, and it might even become locked, with one side perpetually facing the star and one side perpetually facing away. (It would be as if the Eastern Hemisphere were always light and the Western Hemisphere were always dark.)

In turn, the planet would form a thick layer of clouds on the perpetually sunny side. The near-infrared radiation from the star—and cooler stars emit more of this radiation than hotter ones do—interacts with the water vapor in the air and the droplets and ice crystals in the clouds to warm up the air, creating the moist greenhouse state.

The moist greenhouse state could happen even at temperatures as low as those found in the tropical regions of Earth because of that near-infrared radiation interaction, according to the new model, but the study found that in exoplanets close to their stars, the process happens gradually enough that they could remain habitable. This more nuanced model will help guide scientists in their search for habitable planets near low-mass stars.

"As long as we know the temperature of the star, we can estimate whether planets close to their stars have the potential to be in the moist greenhouse state," study co-author Anthony Del Genio explained in a NASA press release. "Current technology will be pushed to the limit to detect small amounts of water vapor in an exoplanet's atmosphere. If there is enough water to be detected, it probably means that planet is in the moist greenhouse state."

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Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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