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Rocket falls from space posing an ever-increasing risk to life on Earth

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-07-20 09:58

Last week, the journal Nature Astronomy published a study estimating a 10 percent chance that a falling rocket could hit someone in the next decade or so. A problem that seems miniscule now could foreseeably become a serious anxiety of the future as launches become more common, both in State-funded ventures and the current corporate space race.

As space exploration rapidly becomes integral to science and technology innovation, it is important we ensure that the ever-increasing number of spacecraft leaving our planet do not return, leading to potential tragedy.

The year 2021 saw 135 successful rocket launches, the most ever in one year. The probabilities behind this are simple. More space launches result in more rocket bodies falling back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner. This creates risk for people everywhere, even in the most remote regions of Earth, at sea or in airplanes.

National governments with spacefaring ventures should act together to create codes of conduct and consequences for non-compliance when it comes to safe rocket reentry which does not pose a risk to life on Earth.

In the study, researchers processed more than 30 years of satellite data that showed that over 1500 space craft deorbited, with more than 70 percent hurtling toward Earth in a completely unpredictable manner.

It is almost impossible to tell where a falling rocket could land due to a myriad of factors, such as the planet's orbit, location of current spacefaring nations and trajectories. However, those in the southern hemisphere face a greater risk. Researchers said that rockets are three times more likely to land in the latitudes of Indonesia and West Africa than they are in the likes of Washington or London, leading to conversation similar to that about climate change, where some nations are left to deal with the consequences of others.

Uncontrolled debris produces a risk to satellite networks in orbit too, affecting the ever-increasing dense layer of orbiting bodies providing us with vital communication and surveillance.

Technology to return bodies safely to Earth in a controlled manner already exists. However, it is rarely used.

Companies are reluctant to take on costs associated with these improvements, given the fact that nobody on Earth has ever died from a falling rocket. Political will to enact current technology, however, must come before tragedy strikes, and not afterwards. Propellant thrust systems, which can steer falling debris into clear green zones, are one solution, while the concept of reusable rockets that can reenter the atmosphere is also developing rapidly.

If a rocket of the future was to fall and damage your property, current legal provisions in international law would protect you. According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and 1972 Liability Convention, states of origin are internationally responsible for the damage caused by spacecraft, even if the craft originated from a private company.

However, such legislation is dated, and only allows inter-government channels of communication and compensation. No current law exists that would regulate negligent rocket reentries and punish non-compliers.

Currently, space agencies judge each launch's risk on a case-by-case basis, and no independent risk assessment is carried out by third party regulators. Given the cumulative risks of launches occurring year after year, tighter controls will be necessary in the future.

Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily.

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