Russian Rocket Crashes Back Into Russia After 42 Years

A decades-old Soviet era piece of space junk has crashed back to Earth after over 40 years in orbit, improbably crash landing back in its home country, Russia.

The abandoned Soviet Vostok-2M Blok E rocket stage, weighing more than 3,000 pounds, "made an uncontrolled reentry over Novaya Zemlya at 1016 UTC Feb 20 after 42.7 years in orbit," tweeted Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and group leader at the Chandra X-ray Center Science Data Systems.

This piece of space debris was a chunk of rocket that was originally launched from the Plesetsk Missile Space Complex, Russia, on June 4, 1980. It launched an Ikar signals intelligence satellite that month, according to McDowell.

Luckily, the area where this rocket stage landed on February 20, the far-northern archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, only has a population of 3,576 as of the 2021 census, with a tiny population density of 0.1 people per square mile, so it's unlikely to have hit a populated area.

space junk earth orbit
Stock image showing space junk in Earth orbit. A piece of Soviet-era rocket crash-landed back in Russia on February 20. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"It orbited Cosmos 1184, which re-entered Earth's atmosphere on 29 April 2002. The military satellite was part of a space-based intelligence-gathering system for intercepting signals," Mark Rigby, an adjunct research fellow for the Centre of Astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia and past curator of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane, told Newsweek.

"The re-entry of the rocket booster was predicted and while the estimated time and place of an uncontrolled re-entry can be narrowed down in the days and weeks before an orbiting object re-enters, there is always an uncertainty to the end considering that such objects are moving at nearly 8 km/s [17,895 mph]," Rigby said.

"Even being one minute out can mean a difference of hundreds of kilometres in the entry point and location of any surviving debris, while about 45 minutes can mean the object can end up on the opposite side of the planet. Satellites and space debris can have different shapes, masses and overall density that can affect predictions, as can solar activity affecting our upper atmospheric density."

With our increased activity in Earth's orbit over the past century, there is more and more debris floating around in space. As of December 22, 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) listed estimates of about 36,500 pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimeters (4 inches) across in Earth orbit, about one million between 1 centimeter and 10 centimeters (0.4 inches to 4 inches), and 130 million objects smaller than 1 centimeter.

"More than 15,000 satellites have been placed in Earth orbit since the first satellite, Sputnik 1, was orbited by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957. That satellite re-entered after only three months," Rigby said. "The number of satellites in Earth orbit has increased dramatically in recent years, due mainly to SpaceX and its Starlink communications satellites in Low Earth Orbit—now nearing 4,000."

These satellites eventually fall to Earth after drag from the Earth's thin upper atmosphere causes anything in orbit to slowly spiral to lower altitude orbits. Eventually, once their orbital speed is slow enough, they fall back into the atmosphere.

"Lower altitudes mean more drag, so this process proceeds faster and faster as space junk moves to lower altitudes, until drag becomes so large that the object re-enters," Samantha Lawler, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Regina, in Canada, told Newsweek.

Both the orbital debris and space junk falling to Earth may become an increasingly big problem over the next few decades. Even if a piece of space debris has not yet fallen to Earth, it can pose a significant danger to other still operational spacecraft sharing the same orbital space.

"We do need to be vigilant as civilian, commercial, and military activities heat up in space," Saadia Pekkanen, director of the Space Law, Data and Policy Program at the University of Washington School of Law, told Newsweek. "As mega constellations of satellites go into space, we have to worry about collision avoidance with not just other assets but also debris. Collisions between spacecraft and the failures of older satellites and spacecraft also contributes to debris."

international space station
Stock image of the ISS. The ISS is one such spacecraft at danger of being hit by fast-moving space debris. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"Because it travels faster than a speeding bullet in low earth orbit, orbital debris of any size can be lethal to humans and machines alike. It is also non-discriminatory, meaning it doesn't care whether you are an astronaut from Russia, China, or the United States, or that the spacecraft is from NASA or the military or a commercial company like SpaceX. So if you are in its orbital path, you have a problem," Pekkanen said.

Even small pieces of space debris, because they are moving upwards of 18,000 miles per hour, can cause significant damage to satellites and spacecraft.

"In 2021, astronauts onboard the ISS [International Space Station] found a hole in the robotic arm due to a debris strike," Wendy N. Whitman Cobb, a professor of strategy and security studies at Air University, told Newsweek. "The fear is that if debris continues to accumulate, it could trigger what is called the Kessler syndrome meaning that one debris strike causes the destruction of a satellite which then creates more debris and so on. Given the extent to which we are using space more than ever, this debris then is a real cause for concern."

When the space junk falls to Earth as seen in this most recent re-entry of the Soviet rocket stage, it can also be dangerous for the people on the ground if the piece of debris is large enough that it survives the fast, hot journey back to Earth.

"Most debris that enters Earth's atmosphere burns up harmlessly. The real concern is with large pieces such as used rocket bodies or even spacecraft that are large enough to have some of their parts survive re-entry," Whitman Cobb said.

The likelihood of space junk hitting a population center is thankfully low due to the huge area of the planet covered by ocean and uninhabited land.

"While the chances are still very good that the remains will land in the ocean, there is a non-zero chance of the debris striking somewhere on the ground," Whitman Cobb said. "When Skylab, the U.S.'s first space station program, was deorbited, some of its debris landed in Australia. More recently, some parts of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets have been found in Brazil. So while there isn't a high chance of debris striking people or property, it's not completely absent either."

However, if a piece of debris did happen to collide with an area where people lived, it could cause heavy damage.

"If a rocket happens to hit in the middle of a city, or hit a passenger jet in flight, that would cause a huge number of casualties," Lawler said. "And it's not at all clear who would be legally responsible for the deaths and injuries in that case, this is a grey area of law that many are studying currently but it's never been tested. Due to the orbits that most rocket bodies are on, this danger will mostly be faced by the Global South."

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