New Space and Tech

Unnecessary Risks Created By Uncontrolled Rocket Reentries

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
October 6, 2022
Filed under , , ,
Unnecessary Risks Created By Uncontrolled Rocket Reentries
Reentry of Mir

In 2020, over 60% of launches to low Earth orbit resulted in one or more rocket bodies being abandoned in orbit and eventually returning to Earth in an uncontrolled manner. When they do so, between 20 and 40% of their mass survives the heat of atmospheric reentry. Many of the surviving pieces are heavy enough to pose serious risks to people, on land, at sea, and in airplanes.

There is no international consensus on the acceptable level of risk from reentering space objects. This is sometimes a point of contention, such as when a 20 tonne Long March 5B core stage made an uncontrolled reentry in May 2021. Some regulators, including the US, France, and ESA, have implemented a 1 in 10,000 acceptable casualty risk (i.e., statistical threat to human life) threshold from reentering space objects. We argue that this threshold ignores the cumulative effect of the rapidly increasing number of rocket launches. It also fails to address low risk, high consequence outcomes, such as a rocket stage crashing into a high-density city or a large passenger aircraft. In the latter case, even a small piece could cause hundreds of casualties. Compounding this, the threshold is frequently ignored or waived when the costs of adherence are deemed excessive.

We analyse the rocket bodies that reentered the atmosphere from 1992 – 2021 and model the associated cumulative casualty expectation. We then extrapolate this trend into the near future (2022 – 2032), modelling the potential risk to the global population from uncontrolled rocket body reentries. We also analyse the population of rocket bodies that are currently in orbit and expected to deorbit soon, and find that the risk distribution is significantly weighted to latitudes close to the equator. This represents a disproportionate burden of casualty risk imposed on the countries of the Global South by major spacefaring countries.

Michael Byers, Ewan Wright, Aaron Boley, Cameron Byers

Comments: Presented at the 23rd Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference, Maui, Hawaii, in September 2022
Subjects: Physics and Society (physics.soc-ph); Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP)
Cite as: arXiv:2210.02188 [physics.soc-ph] (or arXiv:2210.02188v1 [physics.soc-ph] for this version)
Submission history
From: Ewan Wright
[v1] Tue, 4 Oct 2022 08:25:16 UTC (2,879 KB)
Space debris, space junk, space traffic,

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.