SpaceX and Chinese Rocket Debris Point to Growing Problem

History remembers October 4, 1957, a lot better than it remembers January 4, 1958—though in recent weeks, the second date is coming to loom larger than the first. October 4, 1957, was the day the Soviet Union Launched Sputnik—the world’s first satellite—an achievement that heralded the start of the space age.

“RUSS SATELLITE CIRCLING EARTH,” shouted the Los Angeles TimesIn a headline.

“REDS FIRE ‘MOON’ INTO SKY,” answered the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Three months later, the tiny satellite weighing in at 84kg (184 lb) did not experience hyperventilating.The satellite was about the size of a beachball and had slowly fallen from the sky due to atmospheric drag. It then crashed into the earth, becoming a tiny meteor in the fiery heat induced by reentry. With that, the world’s first satellite became the world’s first piece of plummeting space debris. This would not be the end.

Ever since 1957, a massive belt of cosmic junk—defunct satellites, spent rocket parts, bolts, scraps, paint chips, and more—has been accumulating around the Earth. European Space Agency (ESA), estimates there to be at least 36.500 debris objects larger than 10 cm (4 inches). There are 1,000,000 objects measuring between 1 cm and 10 cm (4 in.) across, as well as 130 million that measure 1 mm (0.04 in. to 0.4 in.). All this cosmic junk poses a collision risk for both crewed as uncrewed spacecraft and it is also threatening the 7.7 million of us below.

Last weekend’s 25-ton core of the Chinese Long March 5B rocket crashed from the sky. The heat of reentry caused 40% to 60% of the booster to survive, but despite Chinese assurances, large amounts of metal debris fell on Borneo.

“No casualties or property damage reported, but debris is near villages and a few hundred metres either way could have been a different story,” tweetedJonathan McDowell is an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

It was particularly concerning because many national aerospace programs and private companies in the private sector design their rockets so that they can land at designated locations on the sea or unpopulated desert stretches. Long March 5B does not have such a guidance system.

But it’s not only China that’s been a menace recently. It’s not just China that has been a menace recently. The GuardianAccording to reports, the 10-foot-tall, monolithic-shaped piece of junk that fell on an Australian farm last month was now identified as being part of SpaceX. Brad Tucker (an astrophysicist from the Australian National University) examined one of the panels and found that it had a serial # which identified its source.

NASA initially kept mum about SpaceX, but Administrator Bill Nelson decided to keep his eyes open for China. “The People’s Republic of China did not share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth,” he said in an official statement. “All spacefaring nations should follow established best practices, and do their part to share this type of information in advance.” In the genteel parlance of diplomat-speak, that counts as a dressing-down.

But as news outlets reported this week, NASA has now said that SpaceX confirmed the object was “likely the remaining part of the jettisoned trunk segment from a Dragon spacecraft used during the Crew-1 mission’s return from the International Space Station in May last year,” as the New York Times wrote. A statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, reported by CNN, explained the trunk segment “typically burns up in the atmosphere.” However, “in this case, it likely remained in orbit for more than one year and some pieces of trunk hardware survived to reach the Earth.”

Ultimately, finger-wagging won’t solve anything. Space debris will continue to grow as national space programs all over the globe launch more missions. The private sector is also getting involved in the process. This week, the Atlantic Council think tank issued a report calling on the world to come up with an international framework for orbital traffic management—reporting and sharing information on launches and reentries, and developing ways to collect and clear some of the junk from orbit.

“Achieving security, economic, and societal objectives in the 21st century hinges on free and open access to outer space,” the authors of the report wrote. “Now is the time to act and protect a future of security and prosperity in space.”

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