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Up to 10% chance space rocket's debris will kill someone on Earth: Study

When objects like satellites are launched to be placed in celestial orbits, the rockets used often leave some of their parts in space. If these leftover rocket parts have a low enough orbit, they can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way (AFP)Premium
When objects like satellites are launched to be placed in celestial orbits, the rockets used often leave some of their parts in space. If these leftover rocket parts have a low enough orbit, they can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way (AFP)

The risks of the debris of rockets in space that have a 6 to 10 per cent chance of severely injuring or killing a human being in the next decade, a study claimed.

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Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada in a study have pointed out the risks of the debris of rockets in space that have a 6 to 10% chance of severely injuring or killing a human being in the next decade.

UBC in the research stated that the governments need to take collective action. It mandated Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada in a study have pointed out the risks of the debris of rockets in space that have a 6 to 10% chance of severely injuring or killing a human being in the next decade.

Study lead author Michael Byers said, "Is it permissible to regard the loss of human life as just a cost of doing business, or is it something that we should seek to protect when we can? And that’s the crucial point here: we can protect against this risk." He is a professor at UBC's department of political science.

When objects like satellites are launched to be placed in celestial orbits, the rockets used often leave some of their parts in space. If these leftover rocket parts have a low enough orbit, they can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way.

Although most of the material of this debris will burn up in the atmosphere, potentially lethal pieces can still hurtle towards the ground, researchers said.

The study analysed over 30 years of data from a public satellite catalogue and calculated the potential risk to human life over the next 10 years. The study was published in the journal ‘Nature Astronomy.

To reach the results on the impact that the debris in space can cause on human life, researchers also looked at the corresponding rate of uncontrolled rocket body re-entries, their orbits, and human population data.

Using two different methods, researchers found that the current practices have a 6 to 10% chance of one or more casualties over the next decade if each re-entry spreads, on average, dangerous debris over an area of 10 metres squared.

Pointing out the gravity of the situation and the limitations of the study, Byers stated, that while the calculations consider the probability of one or more casualties for people on the ground, they do not take into account worst-case scenarios, such as a piece of debris striking any aircraft in flight.

The study also pointed out the difference in the burden of risk over the global north and global south stating that the risk is borne disproportionately by the south, despite major space-faring nations being located in the north.

Substantiating this fact researchers cited that, rocket bodies are approximately three times more likely to land at the latitudes of Jakarta, Dhaka, and Lagos than those of New York, Beijing, or Moscow, due to the distribution of orbits used when launching satellites, according to the researchers.

They mentioned a past incident in a similar manner suggesting the significance of this issue. A 12-metre-long pipe from a rocket struck a village in the Ivory Coast in 2020, causing damage to buildings.

Study co-author Aaron Boley, an associate professor at UBC, noted that space launches are increasing. he said, “Risks have been evaluated on a per-launch basis so far, giving people the sense that the risk is so small that it can safely be ignored. But the cumulative risk is not that small."

He expressed his concern in the matter saying, "There have been no reported casualties yet, and no mass casualty event, but do we wait for that moment and then react, particularly when it involves human life, or do we try and get in front of it?"

The solution to the space debris problem

Researchers suggested the solution to the problem by noting the fact that, technology and mission designs currently exist that can largely remove this risk, including by having engines that reignite, as well as extra fuel, to guide the rocket bodies safely to remote areas of the ocean.

However, these measures cost money and there are currently no multilateral agreements mandating that companies make these changes, they said.

Byers cited examples of international collective actions like the mandated transition from single to double hulls on oil tankers following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the US in 1989, and the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer in the 1980s; calling for collective action against space debris too.

Byers said, "Both required some cost to change practice but in response to new scientific analysis, there was a collective will to do so and, in both instances, they were complete successes."

With inputs from PTI. that rocket parts need to be guided back safely to Earth after their use. This step could increase the cost of a launch, but potentially save lives.

Study lead author Michael Byers said, "Is it permissible to regard the loss of human life as just a cost of doing business, or is it something that we should seek to protect when we can? And that’s the crucial point here: we can protect against this risk." He is a professor at UBC's department of political science.

When objects like satellites are launched to be placed in celestial orbits, the rockets used often leave some of their parts in space. If these leftover rocket parts have a low enough orbit, they can re-enter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way.

Although most of the material of this debris will burn up in the atmosphere, but potentially lethal pieces can still hurtle towards the ground, researchers said.

The study analysed over 30 years of data from a public satellite catalogue, and calculated the potential risk to human life over the next 10 years. The study was published in the journal ‘Nature Astronomy’.

To reach to the results on the impact that the debris in space can cause over human life, researchers also looked at the corresponding rate of uncontrolled rocket body re-entries, their orbits, and human population data.

Using two different methods, researchers found that the current practices have a 6 to 10 per cent chance of one or more casualties over the next decade if each re-entry spreads, on average, dangerous debris over an area of 10 metres squared.

Pointing out towards the gravity of the situation and the limitations of the study, Byers stated, while the calculations consider the probability of one or more casualties for people on the ground, they do not take into account worst case scenarios, such as a piece of debris striking any aircraft in flight.

The study also pointed out towards the difference in the burden of risk over global north and global south stating that, the risk is borne disproportionately by the south, despite major space-faring nations being located in the north.

Substantiating this fact researchers cited that, rocket bodies are approximately three times more likely to land at the latitudes of Jakarta, Dhaka and Lagos than those of New York, Beijing or Moscow, due to the distribution of orbits used when launching satellites, according to the researchers.

They mentioned a past incident of a similar manner suggesting the significance of this issue. A 12-metre-long pipe from a rocket struck a village in the Ivory Coast in 2020, causing damage to buildings.

Study co-author Aaron Boley, an associate professor at UBC, noted that space launches are increasing. he said, “Risks have been evaluated on a per-launch basis so far, giving people the sense that the risk is so small that it can safely be ignored. But the cumulative risk is not that small."

He expressed his concern in the matter saying, "There have been no reported casualties yet, and no mass casualty event, but do we wait for that moment and then react, particularly when it involves human life, or do we try and get in front of it?"

Solution to the space debris problem

Researchers suggested the solution to the problem by noting the fact that, technology and mission designs currently exist that can largely remove this risk, including by having engines that reignite, as well as extra fuel, to guide the rocket bodies safely to remote areas of ocean.

However, these measures cost money and there are currently no multilateral agreements mandating that companies make these changes, they said.

Byers cited examples of international collective actions like, the mandated transition from single to double hulls on oil tankers following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, US in 1989, and the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer in the 1980s; calling for a collective action against space debris too.

Byers said, "Both required some cost to change practice but in response to new scientific analysis, there was a collective will to do so and, in both instances, they were complete successes."

(With inputs from PTI)

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