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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.

Skylab

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.

Columbia

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

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Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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11 Things You Might Not Know About Neil Armstrong
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

No matter where private or government space travel may take us in the future, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) will forever have a place as the first human to ever set foot on solid ground outside of our atmosphere. Taking “one small step” onto the moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired generations of ambitious people to reach for the stars in their own lives. Take a look at some facts about that famous quote, how a door hinge changed his life, and why he once went after Hallmark over a Christmas ornament.

1. HE KNEW HOW TO FLY BEFORE HE GOT A DRIVER’S LICENSE.

Neil Armstrong poses for a portrait 10 years before the 1969 Apollo mission
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong became preoccupied with aviation early on. At around age 6, his father took him on a ride in a Ford Trimotor airplane, one of the most popular airplanes in the world. By age 15, he had accumulated enough flying lessons to command a cockpit, reportedly before he ever earned his driver’s license. During the Korean War, Armstrong flew 78 combat missions before moving on to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA.

2. HIS FAMOUS QUOTE GETS MISINTERPRETED.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon, hundreds of millions of television viewers were riveted. Armstrong could be heard saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But that’s not exactly what he said. According to the astronaut, he was fairly sure he stated, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” may have broken up on transmission or it may have been obscured as a result of his speaking patterns. (According to First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, Armstrong said, “I’m not particularly articulate. Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike. As I have listened to it, it doesn’t sound like there was time for the word to be there. On the other hand, I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said—although it actually might have been.”) Armstrong claimed the statement was spontaneous, but his brother and others have claimed he had written it down prior to the mission.

3. WE DON’T HAVE A REALLY GOOD PICTURE OF HIM ON THE MOON.

Buzz Aldrin is seen walking on the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the most celebrated human achievements of the 20th century came at a time when video and still cameras were readily available—yet there are precious few images of Armstrong actually walking on the surface of the moon. (One of the most iconic shots, above, is Aldrin; Armstrong only appears as a reflection in his helmet.) The reason, according to Armstrong, is that he really didn’t care and didn’t think to ask Aldrin to snap some photos. “I don't think Buzz had any reason to take my picture, and it never occurred to me that he should,” Armstrong told his biographer, James R. Hansen. “I have always said that Buzz was the far more photogenic of the crew."

4. A DOOR HINGE MAY HAVE MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE.

Theories abound as to why it was Armstrong and not Buzz Aldrin who first set foot on the moon. (On the Gemini missions, the co-pilot did the spacewalks, while the commander stayed in the craft. For Apollo 11, Armstrong was the commander.) The answer may have been the simple logistics of getting out of their lunar module. The exit had a right hinge that opened inwardly, with the man sitting on the left (Armstrong) having the most unobstructed path to the outside. Aldrin would have essentially had to climb over Armstrong to get out first.

5. HE WAS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT LANDING ON THE MOON THAN HE WAS WALKING ON IT.

The lunar module that took NASA astronauts to the moon
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The romantic notion of a human stepping foot on space soil captured imaginations, but for Armstrong, it was getting there in one piece that was the real accomplishment. The lunar module Armstrong controlled had to be brought down on the moon’s surface from 50,000 feet up, avoiding rocks, craters, and other obstacles as it jockeyed into a position for landing. Because there is no air resistance, nothing could slow their descent, and they used thrusters to guide the craft down. That meant there was only enough fuel to attempt it once. The “business” of getting down the ladder was, in Armstrong’s view, less significant.

6. HE WAS CARRYING A BAG WORTH $1.8 MILLION.

When Armstrong surveyed the surface of the moon, he collected a bag of dust for NASA scientists to examine. Apollo moon samples are illegal to buy or sell, but that apparently wasn't the case with the “lunar collection bag” Armstrong used to hold the samples. In 2015, the bag was purchased by Chicago resident Nancy Lee Carlson from a government auction site for $995. But its sale was, apparently, an accident: When Carlson sent the bag to NASA to confirm its authenticity, NASA said it was their property and refused to send it back—so Carlson took the agency to court. A judge ruled it belonged to Carlson, and in 2017, she sold the bag for a whopping $1.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

7. HE HAD TO SPEND THREE WEEKS IN QUARANTINE.

Richard Nixon greets the returning Apollo 11 astronauts
NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (who remained behind in the command module while the other two touched down on the moon) returned to Earth and were fetched by the USS Hornet, they got a king’s welcome. The only asterisk: They had to bask in their newfound fame from inside a sealed chamber. All three men were quarantined for three weeks in the event they had picked up any strange space virus. When President Richard Nixon visited, he greeted them through the chamber’s glass window.

8. HIS APOLLO SPACE SUIT WAS MADE BY PLAYTEX.

Yes, the undergarment people. In the early 1960s, NASA doled out contract work for their space suits to government suppliers, but it was Playtex (or more properly the International Latex Corporation) and their understanding of fabrics and seams that led to NASA awarding them responsibility for the Apollo mission suits. Their A7L suit was what Armstrong wore to insulate himself against the harsh void of space when he made his famous touchdown. The astronaut called it “reliable” and even “cuddly.”

9. HE BECAME A UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR.

Newil Armstrong sits behind a desk in 1970
AFP/Getty Images

Following his retirement from NASA in 1971, Armstrong was reticent to remain in the public eye. Demands for his time were everywhere, and he had little ambition to become a walking oral history of his singular achievement. Instead, he accepted a job as a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati and remained on the faculty for eight years.

10. HE ONCE SUED HALLMARK.

Hallmark was forced to defend itself when Armstrong took issue with the company using his name and likeness without permission for a 1994 Christmas ornament. The bulb depicted Armstrong and came with a sound chip that said phrases like, “The Eagle has landed.” The two parties came to an undisclosed but “substantial” settlement in 1995, which was, according to First Man, donated to Purdue University (minus legal fees).

11. HE ENDORSED CHRYSLERS.

Armstrong’s preference to lead a private life continued over the decades, but he did make one notable exception. For a 1979 Super Bowl commercial spot, Armstrong agreed to appear on camera endorsing Chrysler automobiles. Armstrong said he did it because he wanted the struggling U.S. car maker to improve their sales and continue contributing to the domestic economy. The ads never mentioned Armstrong was an astronaut.

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