Does falling space debris pose a risk to aircraft?

As Earth’s orbit continues to fill up with scrapped rockets and old satellites, experts say the plane could be in danger from falling debris.

“There is a real risk,” Aaron Boley, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of British Columbia, told “The use of space is simply expanding and as we put large objects into orbit they will eventually fall and if they are left unchecked it is a danger to those on the ground. , at sea and in airplanes.”

Boley and a colleague recently wrote an article on the subject and argued that the recent large increase in both flights and satellite launches could lead to an aviation tragedy unless there are efforts to better contain and track, regulate, and respond to uncontrolled missiles. . Boley’s co-author, UBC political scientist Michael Byers, said there was a 10% chance that space debris would cause one or more deaths over the next decade.

“If it can in principle have a controlled re-entry, then it should have a controlled re-entry,” Boley said. “And if it is completely impossible to have a controlled re-entry, there are other things that need to be done so that we have as much information as possible to move towards making an informed decision and we do not suddenly react to every new major outbreak. falling object. This is what is happening now.”

Satellites are often launched into orbit by rockets, then they are often abandoned to eventually plummet to earth in what is known as an uncontrolled reentry.

“The atmosphere is slowly causing that orbit to decay and at some point it’s going to come back and you don’t know where it’s going to end up in its orbit,” Boley explained.

By contrast, controlled re-entry means that the rocket or spacecraft has a planned return route, such as when astronauts return home from the International Space Station.

“You have things like re-igniting engines, which many rockets have, and they can direct the trajectory and then let it go into a place, like in the ocean out of the way,” Boley said. Go”. “That extra fuel is weight and then takes away the tonnage… So it totally comes at a cost.”

While there have been no cases of rocket or satellite debris hitting an aircraft, several incidents have raised alarms in the past. In May 2020, a Chinese rocket returned uncontrollably, scattering debris in the sky. Ivory Coast. In November 2022, France and Spain partially closed their airspace to another Chinese missile that eventually plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

“So they suddenly changed the plane’s route and it caused a huge delay, which has a huge economic impact,” Boley said.

A look at the Canadian government’s aviation incident database shows that space debris may have landed on or near the country, as on January 18, 2007, when a United Airlines flight “reported about a large fireball with… shards or debris emanating from it” while flying over the North Pole.

“It’s largely the Wild West,” Boley said of the existing rules and regulations for rocket launches. “When a country launches a satellite and puts something in orbit and then it goes down uncontrollably, that country does what is called a risk export. So the country. that allows the rest of the world to bear a large portion of the risk from that particular launch.”

Several countries and aviation groups, such as the Association of Airline Pilots and the International Civil Aviation Organization, have begun to take notice.

In March 2023, the UBC’s Outer Space Institute published the “Montreal Recommendation” that included calls for a “global standard” for unregulated re-entry at a time when there were more than seven thousand The object is in low earth orbit.

“Tens of thousands of additional satellites are being licensed, while hundreds of thousands more are proposed…many of them will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in the years and decades to come,” it wrote. . “Due to their relative speed of impact, even small or light debris that may be harmless to people on the ground can damage an aircraft in flight or require emergency action by crews.”

The article was signed by Boley and Byers at UBC as well as retired astronaut and former Canadian cabinet minister Marc Garneau, inspector general of the French Space Agency and director of space safety for the United States Air Force. Ky.

Boley hopes clear policies will be created by the international community before an uncontrolled re-entry rocket causes an air disaster.

“Final, [we’re] throw everything up and let everything fall down in the pattern that the earth is so big, we don’t need to worry about that,” Boley said. “But, you know, it’s something we’ve done many times: the ocean is so vast, we don’t need to worry about the amount of plastic we’re throwing in; the atmosphere is so full of matter that we don’t need to worry about the amount of carbon we put in. We do it again and again.”

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