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Space Debris On the Rise - And Falling
Posted In: NASA Articles  9/25/11
By: Chris Capps

Space Debris has been a topic of conversation for a few days since the announcement by NASA that one of its large satellites will soon be brought back to Earth, but what is the perspective on space debris?  And how much of a danger does this falling junk from the sky pose to the average person?  As we look deeper into the question we explore a few cases where the sky fell in the wrong place at the wrong time.

First, it's important to know that dying from falling space debris can happen, but it is so overwhelmingly rare that you're likely to know or even meet someone who personally knows or has met someone who has been impacted directly.  Having said that, those statistics did not save the few people who have died from falling space debris.

At the moment, however, NASA says there have been no reported casualties as a result of the falling debris and the largest pieces have already come down - though where precisely some of them are is a matter either unknown or not being disclosed.  The stretch of land where the debris was projected to fall was outside of the United States and the most part of North America has not yet been thoroughly searched.  And it's virtually impossible that all the space debris will be collected leaving some behind for archaeologists to dig up at some day in the future.

But what about the growing threat of falling space debris?  While the threat is indeed growing, we can't really say it's as dangerous as it is interesting.  Despite the amount of debris growing substantially in recent years, the number of deaths has still been quite small.

And if history is any judge, even getting hit by a piece of debris falling from space is often not actually fatal.  One woman in Turley, Oklahoma was struck in the head by a mesh piece of debris and didn't suffer any serious injuries to speak of.  Of course the largest piece of space junk to ever fall to Earth was likely the quickly disintegrating Mir space station, which fell and dropped over a quarter of a million pounds of material on Earth.  While much of it was burned up in the atmosphere, enough remained to worry those who spotted it falling.

To put it in perspective, the recent drop of the UARs was substantially smaller than some of the biggest falls in the past.  In fact, the entirety of all the debris to fall would easily fit in a single shipping container according to NASA.  The truth is, if you're worried about things falling from the sky  you're more likely to find threats in the form of meteorites, lightning, airplanes, and discarded rocket engines.  Of these lightning is still the greatest threat statistically.


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