DiscourseMay 5, 2021 16:12:53 IST
A large piece of space debris, which can weigh several tons, is currently in an uncontrolled return phase (space speaks of “hands”), and some of it is is expected to fall to the ground during the next weeks.
If it’s not worrying enough, it’s impossible to predict exactly where pieces that won’t burn in the atmosphere might land. Considering the item in orbit, possible landing points are anywhere latitude “a little further north than New York, Madrid and Beijing and south to southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand”.
The scrap is part of the Long March 5B rocket that recently launched China’s first module for the proposed space station. The incident takes place about a year after another similar Chinese rocket fell to the groundlanded in the Atlantic Ocean, but not until it reportedly left debris in the African Ivory Coast nation.
At the time, experts noted that this was one of the largest man-made debris that has ever fallen to the ground. We can’t say with certainty what fate awaits in this latest space junk.
Litter from space
Australia already has a record in the category of “who can hit the biggest space junk”. In 1979, the US 77-ton space station SkyLab disintegrated over Western Australia, pepper the part around the coastal town of southern Esperance with shards.
At the time, the event met with excitement and frivolity, and space enthusiasts collected many songs. The Esperance Shire Council blatantly gave NASA a fine for littering, and a U.S. radio station later raised enough money to pay off the debt.
While there are no deaths or serious injuries from people struck by space debris, there is no reason to think that it is not dangerous. Just a year before SkyLab’s death, the Soviet remote sensing satellite, Cosmos 954, collapsed rugged area From northwestern Canada, spreading radioactive debris several hundred square miles.
At the height of the Cold War, the sensitivity of the nuclear technology on board the Cosmos 954 led to an unfortunate delay in finding and clearing the wrecks due to mistrust between Soviet and Canadian / US recovery efforts.
The cleaning took months, but only patched some of the debris. Canada dropped more than $ 6 million for the Soviet Union after spending millions more, but was eventually paid only $ 3 million.
Since the late 1970s, space debris has fallen to Earth on a regular basis and is increasingly addressed. Of course, over 70% of the globe is covered by the oceans, and your house covers only a small fraction of the remaining 30%. But for anyone who crashes with very long odds, the consequences would be really devastating.
It was only a realization of destiny that Cosmos 954 would not have landed in Toronto or Quebec City, where the radioactive fallout would have required a large-scale evacuation. In 2007, Russian satellite debris missed a Chilean passenger plane flying between Santiago and Auckland. As we send more objects into space, the fall caused by the accident only increases.
Who pays to clean up the mess anyway?
International law provides for a system of compensation that would apply in many circumstances in the event of damage to the earth and in the case of satellites. collide in space. 1972 Liability Convention, A UN treaty, holds “triggering states” liable for damage caused by space objects, which includes an absolute system of liability when they collide with the earth as debris.
In the case of the long March 5B, this would create a potential liability for China. The agreement has been invoked only once in the past (For the Cosmos 954 event) and cannot therefore be considered as a strong impediment. However, it is likely to play in a more congested space environment and more uncontrolled returns in the future. This legal framework will, of course, only apply after the damage has occurred.
Other international guidelines for waste reduction and long-term sustainability of space activities set voluntary standards to limit the likelihood of collisions in space and to minimize the disintegration of satellites either during or after operations.
Some satellites can be moved a cemetery orbit at the end of their service life. Although this works well on certain orbits at relatively high altitudes, it is impractical and dangerous to launch most satellites between orbital planes. Most of the millions of pieces of space debris are meant to either orbit uncontrollably for many years or, if in low Earth orbit, to descend gradually toward the earth, hopefully burning in the atmosphere before coming into contact with Terra.
A globally coordinated space traffic management system is necessary to avoid collisions that result in the loss of control of satellites, which could lead to a helpless orbit or fall back to Earth.
Comprehensive monitoring of the movement and activities of each satellite is even more difficult than it sounds, as it inevitably requires countries to be willing to share information that they currently often consider to be matters of national security.
But ultimately, global cooperation is essential if we are to avoid an unsustainable future for our space activities. In the meantime, don’t forget to look up every now and then – you may notice some of the most amazing litters on the planet.
Steven Freeland, Professor Emeritus of International Law, University of Bond, University of West Sydney, University of West Sydney