There’s a 10% Chance Someone Will Be Killed by Falling Rocket Debris in the Next Decade
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
A new study from researchers at the University of British Columbia has found the abandoned stages of rockets left in orbit after launches have a 6-10% chance of falling back to Earth and severely injuring or killing a person in the next decade.
When satellites and astronauts are launched into space, they use various stages of rockets, parts of which get left in orbit.
If the leftover debris sits low enough in orbit, it can fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled way.
Most of the leftover debris burns up harmlessly in the atmosphere, but lethal pieces can still come hurtling back towards the ground.
The researchers used 30 years of public satellite data to find the possible risk to human life, calculating a 6-10% chance of one or more casualties in the next decade if rocket re-entries average debris spreads of 10 meters squared.
The study doesn’t include worst case scenarios, like debris striking an airplane while in flight.
The researchers say people in the global south face the greatest risk of falling rocket bodies, despite major space-faring nations being located in the north.
The latitudes of Jakarta, Dhaka, and Lagos are three times more likely to experience falling debris than the latitudes of New York, Beijing, or Moscow.
Why it matters:
While the risk to any one individual is very low (but not zero), the authors believe governments need to take collective action to address the risk, including mandating that rockets are safely guided back to Earth after use.