Uncontrolled space junk hit Earth over the Pacific on Friday

Space junk: Big white blocky object next to an arm of the space station with the blue background of Earth below.
In 2021, ground controllers for the space station jettisoned this equipment pallet. The space junk has been orbiting Earth for the last few years. It most likely made its reentry on March 8, 2024, over the Pacific. Some fragments should have survived to hit the ocean. Image via NASA/ Jonathan McDowell on X/Twitter.

Update: According to Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who was tracking the pallet’s reentry, the space junk should have hit somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on March 8, 2024.

That location would not be surprising. If you want a good visual of just how much of Earth’s territory is consumed by the Pacific Ocean, rotate this view of the 3D interactive globe until it fills the side of Earth you’re viewing. Although this was an uncontrolled reentry, controlled reentries usually aim for the Pacific Ocean, specifically an area called the spacecraft cemetery. Also called Point Nemo, Wikipedia calls it:

… the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, the location farthest from any land.

Discarded pallet was from 2020

In 2020, a Japanese supply ship arrived at the International Space Station. It brought along an equipment pallet to help astronauts replace old nickel-hydrogen batteries with new lithium-ion batteries. Then, in 2021, ground control jettisoned the SUV-sized pallet, and it began its long journey back to Earth. The pallet had been orbiting Earth for the past few years but reentered Earth’s atmosphere on March 8, 2024. The space junk was large enough that not all of it burned up in our atmosphere. According to Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, around 1/2 a ton of fragments would have hit Earth’s surface.

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The problem of space junk

Last November, spacewalking astronauts lost a tool bag that floated off into space. The tool bag should reenter Earth’s atmosphere between March and July. However, the tool bag is much smaller and should completely burn up in our atmosphere. Some people were even able to spot it from space and took video of it.

Still, increasing space junk is a real problem in near-Earth orbit. According to Chris Impey of the University of Arizona, no one’s in charge of cleaning it up. More than 37,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball are currently orbiting Earth.

But this problem is not new. As early as 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler was pondering what would happen as more satellites took up residence in orbit around Earth. Now known as the Kessler syndrome, the scenario imagines the density of objects in low-Earth orbit becoming high enough that it creates a cascade of collisions, with each collision generating space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.

And the garbage is not just in orbit. In fact, there are 100 bags of human waste on the moon. When the Artemis mission finally reaches the moon, that number will grow.

Blue and green globe of Earth surrounded by a halo of a myriad tiny yellow dots representing space junk.
This NASA illustration shows the extent of orbital debris currently tracked. In fact, more than 37,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball are currently in orbit. With more countries and private companies entering space, space junk is increasing. Image via NASA.

Bottom line: Space junk jettisoned from the International Space Station in 2021 hit Earth on March 8, 2024. The space junk likely reentered over the Pacific Ocean.

March 8, 2024

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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