It Came From Space! Man-Made Objects That Crashed Back to Earth

Most orbital debris is in low Earth orbit, where "what goes up must come down" — derelict satellites, spent rocket boosters, explosive bolt shrapnel, payload fairings, interstage structures, payload adapters, spin-up counterweights, and more. Most reentering debris is small and burns up on reentry. But some of it is large and survives reentry. Occasionally, people even find it. To date, no one is known to have been injured, and, statistically speaking, debris is most likely to fall over water. But it's really only a matter of time before someone does get hurt.

Here is a look at some of the more interesting man-made objects that have fallen from space.

Cosmos 954

The Soviet Union fielded an assortment of radar ocean reconnaissance spacecraft (RORSATs) powered not by solar arrays but by actual honest-to-gosh nuclear reactors. They were designed to eject their nuclear cores to a high, disposal orbit at the end of their lifetimes, but on at least one occasion, this did not happen. Cosmos 954's core was still on board when it reentered the atmosphere on January 24, 1978. Although another RORSAT with a similar predicament had wound up safely in the ocean, this one wasn't so lucky; highly radioactive debris was scattered across the Northwest Territories, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, Canada, on a 600 km path. The Soviets refused to acknowledge that any material had survived reentry until a joint US/Canadian recovery mission cleaned up the debris and billed the USSR more than six million Canadian dollars. (The USSR ultimately paid about half of that.) Most of the spacecraft's mass remained unaccounted for, however. This is a bit concerning since, of the 1% of fuel that was recovered, one fragment was so radioactive that a person holding it for a moment would receive a lethal dose.

Members of Operation Morning Light, wearing snowshoes and winter survival gear, use Geiger counters to locate debris.


The most famous piece of space debris ever, this 69,000 kg space station had been built from an unused S-IVB upper stage from a Saturn V, and boosted into orbit by another Saturn V. Today, it holds the record for the third largest space station after the ISS and Mir. After consuming most of the remaining Apollo hardware, the station was abandoned, with the plan of sending the new Space Shuttle up to reboost it and periodically visit. The Sun had other ideas; solar activity puffed out the Earth's atmosphere, increasing drag, and Skylab fell from orbit largely uncontrolled on July 11, 1979. With the media and diplomatic channels awakened by the Cosmos 954 reentry, there was intense interest. NASA predicted 1 in 152 odds of striking a person. There was still some control over the spacecraft, so NASA attempted to control the reentry by adjusting the station's altitude. This worked, but the station took longer to burn than expected, and there was a 4% error in the calculation — it ended up hitting Australia, strewing debris across Western Australia southeast of Perth. It was the most massive object ever to reenter uncontrolled, tipping the scales at 85 tons. (The Mir space station was more massive, but made a controlled entry over the South Pacific.)

Fragment of Skylab, recovered from the crash site and displayed at the US Space and Rocket Center

Salyut 7

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union launched a series of space stations under the designation "Salyut." All of these heavy spacecraft eventually reentered, but the last of them (and the heaviest) was Salyut 7. Equipped with two docking ports to permit resupply and crew exchange, Salyut 7 had enjoyed a strong career starting in 1982. Near the end of its lifespan, an unmanned TKS spacecraft designated Cosmos 1686 arrived and docked to the station, expanding its pressurized volume and demonstrating the concept of modular stations in preparation for the launch of Mir the following year. In 1986, the first Mir crew made a brief trip to Salyut 7, the last to visit the station. It was then abandoned. On February 7, 1991, the station finally fell from orbit, reentering over Argentina and scattering debris near the town of Capitan Bermudez. With the TKS module attached, the combined system had a mass of 40,000 kg. Unlike its Salyut predecessors, its reentry was completely uncontrolled. More about the Salyut 7 debris, including the scientific analysis of a tank recovered from the crash site, is available here.

Delta II Upper Stage

Many upper stages have reentered through the years; in fact, rocket boosters constitute the majority of large space debris. Most are not observed, but many fragments have been found. In 1997, Ms. Lottie Williams of Tulsa, OK, was hit by a piece of one while she was out walking. It didn't injure her, and the piece was light and cool. It turned out to be fabric insulation from a Delta II rocket's upper stage, which had been launched in 1996 and floated derelict ever since. More of the debris was found downrange, in Texas. Williams is the only person definitively known to have been struck by a piece of reentering orbital debris. You can read more about Lottie Williams here, holding up her small scrap of insulation.

It could have been worse; this tank is from the same rocket, found downrange in Texas.


February 1, 2003. STS-107 was Columbia's first flight in several years, having been sidelined while the other three Orbiters worked on ISS construction. She was scheduled to receive Discovery's Orbiter Docking System, so that she could take over missions while Discovery underwent a routine maintenance period. As she was aging, she was not expected to make many more flights; her last mission was tentatively placed for 2009, returning the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit. (More on that later.) The mission had been a complete success, and it was time to return home. Unbeknownst to NASA or the crew, a piece of foam insulation had punctured one of the reinforced carbon panels. During entry, hot plasma entered through this hole and melted through the aluminum ribs of the wing. The wing eventually tore away, and the entire vehicle rapidly broke up. Debris was scattered over hundreds of miles, and continues to be recovered to this day; last August, the continuing drought in Texas lowered the level of Lake Nacodoches sufficiently to reveal a tank from the fuel cell that provided Columbia with electrical power.

Recovered Columbia debris being identified, processed, and laid out for analysis by the accident investigation board.

Future Reentries

Low Earth orbit is full of objects, the vast majority inactive rocket parts, derelict spacecraft, and fragments. Reentries will keep on happening. The recently deactivated Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer has an estimated 1 in 1,000 chance of injuring a person. The Hubble Space Telescope has no means of returning to Earth under its own power; unless a robotic de-orbit system is developed in time, it will also return uncontrolled, with a 1 in 700 chance of injuring a person, largely due to its massive primary mirror.

Here's what's up there now, in low orbit and zoomed out to geosynchronous orbit. There's more going up all the time, so this will only get busier. Which one will come down next?

Cataloged objects in Low Earth Orbit and out to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit

Now You Can Train to Be an Astronaut on Your Smartphone

Just because you don't work for NASA doesn't mean you'll never make it as an astronaut. In the world of private space tourism, a little training could be all you need. And there's an app for that.

Space Nation, a Finnish space tourism startup, recently launched Space Nation Navigator, which the company touts as the first astronaut training app in the world. The app aims to train future space travelers using games, quizzes, and fitness challenges that fall into three categories: "body," "mind," and "social."

Each of the challenges is tailored to help you develop the skills you'd need to survive in space—even the mundane ones. One mission is called "Did you clean behind the fridge?" and is designed to highlight the unpleasant chores crew members on the ISS have to do to keep things tidy. There are "survival" quizzes that test your knowledge of how to properly build a fire, read a map, and dispose of your poop in the forest. The app also plugs into your smartphone fitness data so that you can participate in athletic challenges, like a 650-foot sprint designed to train you to escape a meteor impact zone.

Screenshots of the Space Nation Navigator app

"Space Nation Navigator offers a way for anyone, anywhere to have a 15-minute astronaut experience every day. These astronaut skills—team building, problem solving, positive life hacks—are not just vital to survive in space," Space Nation CEO Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola said in a press statement. "They are also crucial in your daily life."

New challenges are added to your queue every few hours, and you can compete against other users for high scores. If you get enough points, you can become eligible for real-life training experiences with Space Nation, including a trip to Iceland. In 2019, Space Nation plans to hold an international competition to find one astronaut that the program will send to space.

If you're going to start training, we suggest you take some of the tests Project Mercury applicants faced back in 1958 to see how you'd stack up against the first NASA astronauts.

Get it: iOS, Android

Big Questions
If Earth is Always Moving, Then How Do We See the Same Constellations Every Night?

Luis Medrano:

6700 mph is nothing in cosmological speeds and distances. Constellations are freakin’ far away.

Get in a car at night and drive on a straight road, then look at the moon. The angle of the moon in respect to your point of view doesn’t change; it seems like the moon is following you wherever you go. Meanwhile, things that are really close to you—like electric poles, roadside buildings, and trees—seem to fly by really fast.

The effect is known as parallax. Things that are close seem to move faster and “travel more distance” (not really) than things that are far away.

In the video above, there are several objects in perspective. The light in the center, which represents the sun, was placed so far away you can barely see it move.

The sun is only eight light-minutes away; that’s 146 million km on average. At human scale it seems like a lot, but in cosmic distances it is nothing. Orion, for example, has stars that are from 243 to 1360 light years away from us. Imagine traveling at the speed of light for 1360 years. That’s how far these stars are. And these are not even the farthest stars. Some stars are Giga-light years away from us.

Now, with the proper precision instruments you can indeed notice the parallax in distant stars, just not with the naked eye. Furthermore, our solar system has moved so much since the early days of astronomy and astrology, the constellations do not correspond to the early astrology maps. The constellations appear shifted.

As a free info nugget: In case your life is ruled by astrology, whatever sign you think you are, you are not.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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