Expect More Space Junk From Elon Musk and Other Space Travelers: Expert

Debris believed to have fallen from a Chinese space rocket landed near villages in Malaysia and Indonesia on Saturday, only days after a large object that reportedly came from an Elon Musk-owned spacecraft was found in Australia.

Incidents of space debris falling to Earth are "getting more frequent," and that should be a matter of some concern, Dr. John Crassidis told Newsweek.

Crassidis is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University at Buffalo. He has been studying space junk for 15 years and works with NASA and the U.S. Air Force to help the agencies monitor space debris.

Along with real-life incidents involving these types of debris hitting Earth, space junk has also been on people's minds due to popular entertainment. Jordan Peele's recent hit sci-fi horror film Nope contains an element of falling objects from space, while past blockbusters like Wall-E and Gravity also depicted space debris.

Discussing space junk in the real world, Crassidis said that "the odds of you being hurt by a piece of space junk are extremely small." But with an increase of private space tourism, as well as countries like Russia and China announcing larger commitments to space exploration, he feels those odds could soon increase.

Elon Musk poses for the press
A piece of space junk believed to be from a SpaceX craft was recently found on an Australian farm. A space debris expert spoke with Newsweek about the increasing likelihood of such incidents occurring in the near future. In this photo, SpaceX's owner Elon Musk is seen posing on the red carpet of the Axel Springer Award 2020 event on December 1, 2020, in Berlin. Photo by Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

In the incident from last week, a farmer in Australia discovered an approximately 10-foot piece of space junk on his property after his daughters heard a large crash. An Australian National University space expert was called to the scene, and he identified the object as having come from a SpaceX Crew-1 craft.

This is not the first time Elon Musk has been blamed for space junk hitting Earth. Part of what authorities said was a SpaceX rocket was discovered in Washington state last year. The 5-foot-tall vessel didn't cause any damage aside from 4- to 5-inch impact mark in the ground.

Crassidis said SpaceX likely tried to maneuver its debris to fall into a "highly unpopulated" part of the Pacific Ocean that's often used as a target for objects returning from space.

"It's not an exact science. So I'm not exactly sure what happened here, and I'm certainly not blaming SpaceX," Crassidis said of the debris found in Australia. "I think they did the best they could to ensure that it would go into the Pacific Ocean."

Crassidis also pointed out that since most of the Earth is covered by ocean, most debris hits water. However, an uptick in space junk hitting land will likely coincide with the recent increase in space tourism offered by companies owned by Musk, Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin).

"It's starting to get to the point where places should start worrying about this stuff," Crassidis said. "There have been some studies that say if this keeps up, there's going to be a 1-in-10 chance in the next 10 years that somebody will be hurt."

Different suggestions have been discussed in how to prevent space junk from hitting Earth. These include large space nets and harpoons, as well as lasers to blast the debris into smaller pieces before it enters the Earth's atmosphere.

"A laser blowing it out of the sky is probably one of the last things you want. When you start blowing up stuff in space, you cause more space debris. That'd probably be better for when it comes back down. But the last thing you want to do is cause space debris in space that can possibly collide with other objects," Crassidis said.

He added that a "marble-sized piece of debris can wipe out a satellite," which brings him to his more pressing concern.

"Honestly, to me, I think the astronauts in space have a bigger chance of being hurt than us here on the ground," he said.

Right now, Crassidis said the technology is just not there to stop space junk from entering Earth's atmosphere and hitting somewhere on the planet's surface.

"I'm trying to do what's more feasible, and that is better track this stuff," he said. By understanding how debris is moving through space, Crassidis said scientists can better predict where it's going to go.

"I don't really focus on stuff coming back in because there's nothing really we can do about that," he said. "I'm just trying to better track the stuff that's out there right now."