Sorry kids, but when you wish for a shooting star, those flashing streaks the night sky could actually be flaming rocket parts. And as new research suggests, some of those flaming rocket parts could be heading in your general direction.
Scientists say it is increasingly likely that the rain of rocket parts could cause injury or damage to people on Earth. While it’s still extremely unlikely that you’ll get a rocket fuselage in the face when gazing at the stars, researchers are calling on space nations around the world to consider controlled re-entries for ship components left floating in low Earth orbit.
In a Nature Communications paper Released today, Canada-based researchers say there is a 10% chance that one or more victims will fall victim to falling rocket parts within the next decade, based on data extrapolated to from publicly available reports. The strong possibility that these rocket parts are more likely to land in the global south means that most space nations and private companies are “effectively exporting risk to the rest of the world”, especially the southern part of the globe, as write the scientists in their study.
But how likely are parts of a rocket to fall on areas occupied by humans? Well, more and more countries and private companies are putting rockets into space, which means more decoupled parts are lying around in orbit. There was 133 successful launch attempts in 2021, a new world record, and we are looking to break this record in 2022. According to the report, more than 60% of rocket launches have abandoned rocket bodies in orbit, where they are left to circle the Earth for days, months or years.
Prior to research shows that less than 50% of the Earth that is not permanently covered in ice has remained relatively uninhabited and untouched by humans. But as the new research shows, there’s still a chance that rocket parts could hit populated centers. The team used data on average orbit angles and population statistics at different latitudes to show that there is a curve in the likelihood of pieces crashing into places with at least one human habitation.
And since so many of these launches take place near the equator, the risk is higher for developing countries in the southern hemisphere. Scientists have noted that cities like Jakarta (Indonesia), Mexico City (Mexico) or Lagos (Nigeria) are three times more likely to be affected than cities like New York, Beijing or Moscow.