Space junk danger: Ohio’s emergency plan includes debris warning

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) — The Ohio Emergency Management Agency has a plan in place to react to 31 different disasters. This includes natural disasters like tornados, earthquakes and droughts. It also includes man-made disasters like terrorism and cyber-attacks.

Among the 31 potential disasters for which Ohio’s EMA is prepared is one that falls from the sky but is not precipitation. It is a hazard from the heavens.

“One of our less hazards or lesser hazards — you know the risk to it but is out there — is space junk,” said Ohio EMA Director Sima Merick. “In our hazard analysis, space junk is there and periodically we will see, you know, that there is something falling. We get a warning that something is falling, you know, an old satellite or something,” said Merick.

Orbiting in the atmosphere above our heads is more man-made space debris than most may realize. NASA says there are millions of pieces of debris orbiting the Earth. As of January 1, 2020, the amount of material orbiting our planet exceeded 8,000 metric tons.

NASA tracks all debris that is the size of a baseball or larger, concerned principally of the dangers when that debris can collide with a manned space capsule or a functioning satellite.

However, only one third of the satellites currently orbiting the Earth are even working. The remaining are considered “space debris,” which we are adding to all of the time.

According to NASA, over the last 50 years, an average of one cataloged piece of debris fell back to Earth each day. Some of the debris is large enough that parts of it will reach the surface of the planet, which is why Ohio’s Emergency Management has a plan to react to it.

Among the organizations paying close attention to all of the re-entering satellites is the California-based Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies. The organization keeps a record of all of the falling satellites and provides an estimated time of re-entry. They also try to give an approximate area where the debris may land.

“We expect to see a very large increase in the rate of re-entry and, if it’s an uncontrolled entry, it’s got to come down someplace and so them having space debris as a category to watch out for is not completely unreasonable but it’s pretty unlikely,” said Ted Melhaupt, the organization’s principal director.

In 2011, an upper atmospheric research satellite came back to Earth. NASA estimated 20 large pieces would survive re-entry. In March of this year, amateur photographers captured a dramatic light show in the Western United States when a stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket fell back to Earth.

“And that almost certainly had objects that reached the ground. It’s a big stage. We looked at how it breaks up and so somewhere out there in the Pacific Northwest there’s debris on the ground,” said Melhaupt.

Because the Earth is mostly covered by water there is a higher chance that anything falling from space will end up in the oceans.

Lottie Mae Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was actually hit by a piece of a Delta rocket that fell back to Earth while she was out for a walk. She recalls hearing the sound of rustling through tree limbs before she felt the piece hit her.

“Everybody was trying to tell me that it wasn’t possible but I knew better than that because I had it. If I hadn’t had it I would have perhaps said the same thing, but I had it,” said Williams in a 2011 interview.

Overall, the risk of space debris is great enough that the state of Ohio actually has developed a plan to react to it and, according to Melhaupt, the risk is only getting greater.

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