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Falling Space Debris Is a Bigger Menace Than Ever

4 minute read

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 Times in a banner headline.

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

There was no such hyperventilating, however, three months later to the day, when the little 84 kg (184 lb.), beachball-sized satellite, having slowly lost altitude due to atmospheric drag, fell from the sky, burning up like a small meteor in the fiery heat of reentry. With that, the world’s first satellite became the world’s first piece of plummeting space debris. It would by no means be the last.

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. According to figures from the European Space Agency (ESA), there are at least 36,500 space debris objects greater than 10 cm (4 in.) across; 1 million objects ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm (0.4 in to 4 in); and a whopping 130 million measuring 1 mm (.04 in) to 1 cm (0.4 in). Not only does all this cosmic rubbish pose a collision risk to both crewed and uncrewed spacecraft, it also menaces the 7.7 billion of us on the planet below.

Just last weekend, on July 30, the 25-ton core stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket fell from the sky in an uncontrolled plunge. Up to 40% of the giant booster survived the heat of reentry, and despite Chinese assurances that the mass of spent metal posed little or no danger to population centers, chunks of debris rained down 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,” tweeted astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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The incident was especially troubling because most national space programs and private sector aerospace companies design their rockets to have enough maneuvering fuel left aboard to land at planned spots in the ocean or on vast stretches of unpopulated steppe or desert. The Long March 5B has no such guidance system.

But it’s not only China that’s been a menace recently. As The Guardian reports, a 10-foot tall, monolith-like piece of debris that landed on an Australian farm last month has now been identified as belonging to SpaceX. One of the panels on the piece of junk, examined by Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, bore a serial number that identified its origin.

NASA initially stayed mum on the SpaceX incident, with Administrator Bill Nelson reserving his fire 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. With national space programs around the world continuing to launch, and with the private sector increasingly getting into the game, the space debris problem is only going to get worse. 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.”

This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can sign up here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com