© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
Public Files Contact · ATSC 3.0 FAQ
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The space junk was supposed to disintegrate in the atmosphere — it didn't


A family in Naples, Fla., got quite a surprise last month when a chunk of metal crashed through the roof of their home.

ALEJANDRO OTERO: It was a tremendous sound, and it almost hit my son. He was two rooms over and heard it all.

FADEL: Alejandro Otero talked to WINK when it happened, and now they finally have an answer from NASA.


Yeah. Listen to this. The space agency issued a statement saying the metal was from a pallet of old batteries tossed out of the International Space Station three years ago.

FADEL: Well, it was supposed to disintegrate in the atmosphere, but Moriba Jah at the University of Texas at Austin says it doesn't always go as planned.

MORIBA JAH: There's probably over a dozen things, like dead satellites and pieces of space debris, that reenter the atmosphere daily. A lot of those are small. By and large, those mostly burn up, but larger things could definitely survive and make it to the surface, like this thing did.

FADEL: Jah is a professor in the school's aerospace engineering department.

JAH: My job is to find ways to understand and predict the behavior of human-made objects in orbit.

MARTÍNEZ: Jah says the federal officials who keep track of space debris can't always predict where something will land, although they can calculate roughly when it'll come down and the probability that a hunk of space junk could hurt someone.

FADEL: If it's less than a one-in-10,000th chance, Jah says it's usually considered safe enough not to intervene.

JAH: I don't know about you, but if I'm driving on a freeway and somebody says, hey, there's about a one-in-10,000 chance that a bridge will fall on you, that doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy inside to get into a car.

MARTÍNEZ: Me neither. Human-made space objects aren't built to last, but Jah says there are probably safer ways to dispose of them.

JAH: There's no reason why NASA and the U.S. government can't say, hey, we're going to do a controlled disposal so that it fully burns up in the atmosphere, and we'll design it out of a material that doesn't pollute the atmosphere in the process.

FADEL: So maybe the lesson here is don't throw junk out of your space window. In its statement, NASA says it will investigate and remains committed to mitigating risk to protect people on Earth when space hardware has to be released.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.