Be careful, the sky will soon literally fall on our heads

Missing from the sky was a very large piece of equipment in the news this summer: a 25-ton end of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket threatened to crash into Earth after an uncontrolled fall.

Fortunately for people who might have been at the point of impact, the thing eventually disintegrated over the Indian Ocean, but it was not without effect, forcing some countries to temporarily close their airspace. , because you never know.

This was not the first, especially for Chinese launchers, which have the rather unpleasant tendency to return to their starting point, Earth, anywhere and everywhere.

In 2020, the uncontrolled re-entry of Long March 5B into the atmosphere could have turned into a disaster, with New York City being one of the potential urban targets for this involuntary bomb. The following year, a similar alarm was sounded, again for a piece of Long March 5B heavy launcher that fell a little too haphazardly onto the floor of the cows.

The sky has already begun to fall on our heads. And if Chinese rockets are regularly singled out, especially in the Middle Kingdom itself for overland launches, they are far from the only ones that pose a problem.

The Australian farmer who was surprised to find a large piece of stuff labeled SpaceX can attest to this, as can the residents of Salinopolis, Brazil, who fished out a piece of rocket that took off from French Guiana.

Of Toutatis and Ariane VI!

Unfortunately, these incidents are just the start of a potentially more serious trend, as ZDNet explains. Because rockets are no longer the only ones falling back to Earth: the problem is known, and our planet’s low orbit is now a chaotic jumble of satellites, objects and space debris.

“Although space is infinite, we place our satellites in very specific areas. And there are traffic jams”explains to the mediaastrodynamicist Moriba Yes. The numbers are truly staggering: according to figures cited by ZDNet, there were 1,700 low-orbit satellites in 2016, compared to 5,400 in 2022, and possibly 57,000 in 2030: it’s no longer a traffic jam, it’s the tunnel August 3 Fourvière at 3 p.m.

The decrease in the cost of launches thanks to the arrival in the space market of players like SpaceX, which itself regularly swings the satellites in its Starlink constellation, as if throwing rice at newlyweds, makes this low orbit a place more easily achieved by smaller companies.

But the presence of these thousands of objects rotating at insane speeds above our heads poses many problems, as explained by ZDNet. Collisions are possible and the protective atmosphere may not always burn all the debris when entering these space debris containers; falling objects are therefore likely to multiply in the coming years and human catastrophes can be expected.

In addition, not all space companies foresee the end of life of the devices they place in orbit – or even what might happen to their objects if they go bankrupt, which has already been seen. Some companies already claim to think “responsibly” about these issues, such as Starlink’s competitor OneWeb, which claims to have designed its satellites so that they can be “towed away” when they are at the end of their life or in the event of events. of a problem.

Because order and safety are not always the priority of the clean market, public authorities must also intervene to impose regulations and try to avoid future disasters.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently introduced a rule called “five years”: Companies that place an object in orbit must be able to move the thing within five years of the end of its life or its mission.

But as experts interviewed by ZDNet explain, it is already too late for many objects. Some have been spinning lifeless for twenty-five years above our heads, posing a risk of collision—and therefore catastrophic terrestrial fallout—with other recently sent objects. Other specialists also note that the sanctions are not a sufficient deterrent to force private actors to clean up their orbital ranks.

One of the solutions may be technical. Some start-ups, such as the company Privateer, launched by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, have taken it upon themselves to map this chaos that orbits above our heads in order to make low-Earth orbit more coherent and better exploitable. . Impressively, its Wayfinder tool is already online and allows you to realize the extent of the problem.

Repairing satellites, especially from space where parts could be manufactured, is also an avenue being explored by US and international authorities, and even by some private players. Finally, some economists are calling for a tax on satellites, which would offer another weapon in an attempt to solve this difficult problem. space junk which we do not know what to do with and to better promote the sector.

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