This much is certain: An out-of-control Chinese booster rocket went up and will come down — one of the largest objects to reenter the atmosphere without any controls to guide its trajectory. With oceans and unpopulated areas covering much of the globe, it’s statistically unlikely that any piece of […]
This much is certain: An out-of-control Chinese booster rocket went up and will come down — one of the largest objects to reenter the atmosphere without any controls to guide its trajectory.
With oceans and unpopulated areas covering much of the globe, it’s statistically unlikely that any piece of falling space junk would land in someone’s suburban backyard. But it’s also not outside the realm of the possibility: Ever since humans began sending rockets into space, pieces of debris have turned up in unexpected places.
The first known report of damage caused by space debris came as early as 1969. Japanese diplomats informed a United Nations committee that an unidentified object had fallen from space and hit a freighter that was traveling off the coast of Siberia, seriously injuring five crewmen. Soviet ships soon showed up looking for the wreckage.
Japanese officials said that experts identified the debris as part of a Soviet spacecraft. But Tokyo initially kept that information a secret, out of a desire to avoid provoking a conflict with Moscow, according to the Associated Press.
The hazards of space junk became abundantly clear in 1978 when the nuclear-powered Soviet satellite Kosmos 954 plummeted to earth, scattering potentially radioactive debris across Northwest Territories, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. A massive cleanup effort dubbed “Operation Morning Light,” which involved searching for tiny pieces of radioactive material in the Arctic tundra, ended up costing close to $14 million in Canadian dollars.
When NASA’s first space station, Skylab, disintegrated on reentry in 1979, it scattered debris across the previously-obscure Western Australia farming community of Esperance. “It was the best fireworks display you would ever see,” Brendan Freeman, a retired farmer, later told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
No major damage was done, but Esperance jokingly issued a $400 fine for littering to NASA. The agency didn’t pay up — perhaps due to fear of setting a precedent — but a disc jockey in Barstow, Calif., crowdfunded the money and traveled to Esperance to deliver a novelty check.
Early one weekend morning in 1987, a retired aircraft mechanic living in a small town outside the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California heard a loud noise that sounded like a gunshot outside his bedroom window. Later that day, he discovered a seven-foot-long, singed-looking piece of metal lying in the alleyway next to his house.
Air Force analysts determined that the object was most likely a piece of a Soviet rocket that had been seen streaking through the sky as it burned up and fell to earth. “It’s exciting because something like that usually doesn’t happen around here,” a neighbor, Maggie Pickle, told the Associated Press.
In 1997, Lottie Williams was taking an early-morning walk with friends in a Tulsa park when she saw something that looked like a shooting star hurtling through the sky. It hit her on the shoulder — so lightly that she barely even felt it. Scientists later determined that the object was most likely a piece of a U.S. Delta II rocket. Williams kept it as a souvenir.
“I think I was blessed that it doesn’t weigh that much,” she told NPR years later. “I mean, that was one of the weirdest things that ever happened to me.”
When the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentering the atmosphere, killing seven astronauts on board, impromptu memorials popped up in places where debris had landed. People in the rural area along the Texas-Louisiana border reported seeing pieces of the shuttle crash into a reservoir and come hurtling through the roof of a dentist’s office, and one enterprising individual attempted to sell a piece of the debris for $10,000 on eBay.
Roughly 84,000 pieces of the space shuttle were located after extensive searches through swamplands, forests and pastures. That debris was then used to reconstruct the shuttle and determine the cause of the disaster.
Almost exactly one year ago, in May 2020, a nearly identical Chinese rocket hurtled back to earth. Though it initially appeared to land in the Atlantic Ocean, reports of sonic booms and metallic debris falling from the sky suggested that some parts of the rocket had hit the Ivory Coast village of Mahounou.
“When you have a big chunk of metal screaming through the upper atmosphere in a particular direction at a particular time, and you get reports of things falling out of the sky at that location, at that time, it’s not a big leap to connect them,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told the Verge at the time.
No injuries were reported, and the discovery of a nearly 40-foot-long piece of tubing appears to have provoked more curiosity than concern in the area.
The most recent incident involving falling space debris took place a little over a month ago, when a Space X rocket disintegrated over the Pacific Northwest and created a dramatic light display that some initially mistook for falling stars.
One piece of equipment landed in a Washington state farm, leaving a four-inch dent in the soil, the Verge reported. A similar object was found on a Oregon beach by a fisherman days later, though officials haven’t confirmed that it came from the Space X launch.