Jul 13, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Watch Out For Falling Rockets: There's a 10% Chance You Could Be Killed By a Rocket Stage in the Next 10 Years

Are you reading this article while outdoors? If so, are you wearing a helmet? You may want to put one on after you finish – according to a new study, a person has a one in ten chance of getting killed by a falling rocket within the next ten years. If you would like to run in and put on a bike helmet while cursing NASA and Elon Musk, we’ll wait. Then we’ll explain the whys and hows and possible avoidance strategies.

“The publicly available satellite catalogue provides data for objects that are currently in orbit, as well as those that have reentered, including rocket bodies. Over the past 30 years (4 May 1992–5 May 2022), more than 1,500 rocket bodies have deorbited. This means that, at face value, if the average rocket body were to cause a casualty area of 10 m2, there was an approximately 14% chance of one or more casualties over this time. Although no such event occurred, or at least was reported, these calculations show that the incurred risk has been far from negligible.”

What goes up, must eventually come down.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, Michael Byers, lead author from the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, looks at the past dangers caused by rocket stages falling to Earth and future dangers as the number of these launches increases due to growing satellite networks, increasing space travel – both government and private – and military projects. It is amazing and somewhat baffling that no one has been killed by a falling rocket stage yet, since nearly all launches to date have resulted in uncontrolled rocket part reentries – only a few reusable rockets have been returned successfully by the private space companies SpaceX and Blue Origin. Meanwhile, more and more people are reporting UFOs that turn out to be either rocket launches or rocket stages burning up in the atmosphere as they fall back to Earth.  Those are identified flying objects and the study reports that they are getting dangerously close to being killing objects.

“In May 2020, an 18 ton core stage of a Long March 5B rocket reentered the atmosphere from orbit in an uncontrolled manner after being used to launch an unmanned experimental crew capsule. Debris from the rocket body, including a 12-m-long pipe, struck two villages in the Ivory Coast, causing damage to several buildings. One year later, another 18 ton core stage of a Long March 5B rocket made an uncontrolled reentry after being used to launch part of China’s new Tiangong space station into low Earth orbit. This time, the debris crashed into the Indian Ocean.”

These are the heaviest objects to reenter in an uncontrolled manner since the Soviet Union’s Salyut-7 space station burned up in the atmosphere over Argentina in 1991. These are the most dangerous of the estimated 170 million pieces of “space junk” created by the estimated 6,200 launches since 1957. Since they’re the biggest pieces and their usage ends mostly before the payload reaches orbit, they are an obvious danger to life on Earth, which is why most, but far from all, U.S. launches take place from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the parts are usually discarded over the ocean. Unfortunately, other countries don’t follow the same discarding procedure … either because they’re landlocked, it’s too expensive or they’re just too lazy and unconcerned about the dangers – especially if the launches travel over other countries.

“There is no international consensus on the acceptable level of risk, and other spacefaring states—including the USA—make similar choices concerning uncontrolled reentries.”

The study does its best to prepare you to be terrified as you scan the skies. It states that in 2020, over 60% of launches to low Earth orbit resulted in a rocket stage being abandoned in orbit – an orbit that could last for days or years. These are the cause of much space debris as they crash into satellites and other space objects or explode due to leftover fuel. And that’s the good news – if they stay intact, these multi-ton monsters are big enough to survive the heat of atmospheric reentry and pose severe dangers to those on the ground and in airplanes. It then speculates that the number of launches will increase in the next 10 years and calculates a conservative total of rocket bodies that will deorbit in that timeframe and make a lethal crash in an area of 10 square meters. After factoring in a 1% population increase per year, the risk factor was calculated:

“Assuming again that each reentry spreads lethal debris over a 10m2 area, we conclude that current practices have on order a 10% chance of one or more casualties over a decade.”

Let’s say you’re not worried about that risk factor because you don’t live in Florida. That’s a safe assumption, but it means the risk is higher in other areas. The study looks at major population centers where the chance of being killed by a rocket body reentry is the highest and at the top of the list is Moscow, followed by Washington, DC, Beijing, Dhaka, Mexico City, Lagos, Bogotá and Jakarta. The study notes that the risk is higher in the developing world in the Global South, where poverty exposes the populations to less protection from buildings – cheap roofs or no roofs at all are not what you want when dangerous debris is falling from the sky.

Can we at least rest assured that world governments, major space agencies and private space companies are addressing this problem? What planet do you live on?

Can we change 'Rock' to 'Rocket'?

“National governments could raise the standards applicable to launches from their territory or by companies incorporated there. However, individual governments might have competing incentives, such as reducing their own costs or growing a globally competitive domestic space industry. Uncontrolled rocket body reentries constitute a collective action problem; solutions exist, but every launching state must adopt them.”

The study compares this situation to other dangerous circumstances the world has put itself in before – one example is the discovery in the 1970s that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration systems were reducing ozone molecules in the atmosphere and increasing the risk of cancer. In 1985, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was adopted and ratified by every single UN member state, eventually reducing the global use of CFCs by 98%. A similar but less successful global agreement has resulted in the reduction of oil spills from tanker ships. On the other hand, we have seen how difficult it is to get global agreement on dealing with the dangers of human-caused climate change. What are the chances of convincing around 200 world leaders to agree to reduce the risk of death by falling rockets when no one has yet to have been killed by one? The problem is exacerbated by the fact that poorer countries in the Global South have the highest risk, yet the least power on the glocal stage.

NOW do you have your helmet on?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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