Space junk returns to Earth

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Uncontrolled space junk, specifically a discarded equipment pallet from the International Space Station (ISS), reentered Earth's atmosphere and impacted over the Pacific Ocean on March 8, 2024. This pallet, jettisoned in 2021, was part of a mission to replace old nickel-hydrogen batteries on the ISS with new lithium-ion ones. Despite the uncontrolled nature of its reentry, the location over the Pacific Ocean was not unexpected, as controlled reentries often target this area, particularly a region known as the spacecraft cemetery or Point Nemo, due to its remoteness from land. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, estimated that about half a ton of fragments from the pallet would reach Earth's surface, highlighting the ongoing issue of space debris in Earth's orbit. The increasing amount of space junk poses a risk of collision and further debris generation, a scenario known as the Kessler syndrome. Efforts to manage space debris face challenges, including the lack of a centralized authority for cleanup and the technical difficulties of removing debris from orbit1. The European Space Agency (ESA) closely monitored the reentry of this pallet, estimating its reentry window and acknowledging the low risk it posed to human safety due to the vast majority of Earth's surface being uninhabited or covered by water. The ESA and other space agencies regularly track such reentries, which occur about once a week for large objects, to assess and mitigate potential risks3. This incident underscores the broader issue of space debris management and the need for international cooperation and innovation in debris monitoring, mitigation, and removal strategies to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities13.
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