Rise in space junk falling to Earth

  • 25/12/2015
Rise in space junk falling to Earth

The mystery behind a streaking fireball seen barrelling across several US states has finally been solved.

The burning object set off a wave of excitement on social media, some speculating it was a meteor, while others were convinced it was Santa's sleigh.

But streaking lights could start becoming a more common sight.

The object streaked across the night sky, past Nicki Pogue's airplane window.

"The captain got on the PA, said there is a meteor going by," she says. "It was a big fireball with a sparkly tail."

It was not a meteor, as it turned out, but the booster from a Russian rocket sent up on Monday now coming down.

"After a moment, after you saw this beautiful thing, you said, 'Wait, where is that going?'" says Ms Pogue. "It was close to plane and I realised it was heading to earth, so we were concerned."

That rocket became the 109th object to come down from space this year, part of a steadily increasing trend. As the technology gets smaller and cheaper, more governments and companies are sending satellites and rockets, so more junk falls out of orbit back to Earth.

Paul Ceruzzi is a curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

"You can do wonderful things in space – communications, weather, navigation, all those things," he says. "But if we pollute that environment with debris, it's like polluting a pristine river or lake on the Earth; you just don't want to do that."

The problem is mushrooming. In 1957, the only manmade item in space was the Sputnik satellite. Now, US military officials say they are monitoring some 23,000 objects circling the Earth.

US Strategic Command officials say the International Space Station had to move four times this year to avoid possible collisions.

"They do present a hazard to the space station," says Mr Ceruzzi. "There's no question about it; these velocities are just staggering – 17,000mi/h for the space station. If something's coming at it crosswise, it's thousands of miles an hour. Even something as small as a couple of ounces can do some serious damage."

The people who are generally least at risk are all of us here on Earth. Scientists say most of the stuff that comes back through the atmosphere burns up, breaks up, or falls into our vast oceans.

Watch the video for the full CBS News report.