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

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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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
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iStock

An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]

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