Will Space Junk Hit Me?

Will Space Junk Hit Me?

Space junk is debris in space. The probability of space junk hitting you on Earth’s land is low, as Earth has 196.9 million square miles of surface, most of which is water. Nonetheless, space junk does collide with land on Earth. Although numbers of strikes are few, their frequency is ever increasing. Like winning the lottery, one unlucky person might become the first to experience a strike of space junk debris. In this post, we review famous and infamous crashes of space junk to Earth’s land and a recent crash to water.

Dr. MMM of AstroPicionary has taught astronomy to 10,000+ students over 15+ years at a USA Carnegie Level R1 University. Dr. MMM continues to teach astronomy and physics. She authors textbooks in astronomy that are in use worldwide. Here, Dr. MMM discusses an unusual sighting seen from Earth – white rainbows.

What Is Space junk?

Space junk is space debris. Other names are space garbage, space waste, space trash, and space pollution. Besides man-made defunct objects, space debris may also be natural objects like meteoroids. This AstroPictionary video explains space debris:

AstroPictionary video on space debris

In short, space junk is any debris in space. To a traveling spaceship or probe, a field of meteoroids in space may be space debris. A man-made satellite that was once functioning, but is no longer, maybe space junk.

Space junk could be as small as a bolt. On the other side of the size spectrum, space debris can be as large as pieces of a space station. Launch vehicles and satellite breakups are also large pieces of space debris.

One of the newest additions to the list of large space junk is the European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel 1b which has a mission to continuously radar map Earth’s surface. The payload began malfunctioning in December 2021.

Sketch of Sentinel 1, a radar satellite, courtesy of Rama under CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

Who Has Provided Most Debris to Space?

The United States of America tops the list of countries that have contributed the most orbital debris in space. The second is Russia, and the third is China.

The United States of America’s Department of Defense tracks more than 27,000 large pieces of debris in space. More specifically, the United State Air Force Space Command operates the Space Surveillance Network (SSN). The SSN consists of optical and radar global sensors that detect, track, and identify all man-made objects orbiting Earth.

SSN tracks both active and inactive satellites as well as smaller space debris. SSN has been tracking space debris since 1957, as space debris can provide significant damage to functioning instruments used in space missions if struck. It can track debris as small as around 5 cm at low altitude and on inclined orbits and around 10 cm objects in low orbit. SSN can track ~1 m-sized objects in geostationary orbit. The sketch below shows the approximate locations of this space debris. More than 95% shown are non-functioning satellites in orbit around Earth.

Sketch of orbital debris locations around Earth, courtesy of NASA under Public Domain

As seen by this graphic, much in space is now junk. Some of these that are now at low altitudes will continue their downward path until they crash uncontrolled to Earth. Let’s look at some examples.

Examples of Crashing Space Debris

Below are examples of space debris crashes on Earth. Most space debris land in water, but some do find their way to land in remote and somewhat populated areas. From 1992 to 2022, around 1500 manmade space objects have passed through Earth’s atmosphere to the ground uncontrollably. Here we look at some crashes in chronological order.

1966 USA Test Rocket Debris in Brazil

In 1964, NASA launches a vehicle from Cape Canaveral Space Station. Two years later, this test rocket reenters Earth’s atmosphere and breaks apart. Debris strews across Brazil. Several chunks of lightweight metallic objects and wires are retrieved near the Rio Negro District of Brazil. This space debris is from a stage of Saturn development test rocket SA-5.

1969 Soviet Spacecraft Strikes Freighter Near Japan

An authentic case of space junk occurs in June 1969: A small freighter traveling between the coast of Siberia and Sakhalin island in the Sea of Japan reports a strike of space debris to the boat’s deck. The Dai Chi Chinei freighter also report five freighter’s crew injuries as a result of a falling space debris as recorded in NASA’s Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1969 report. Some of the debris has mass near 10 kg, which has a near equivalent weight of four bowling balls. Japanese experts investigate the space debris and identify the debris as coming from a once fully functioning Soviet spacecraft according to a Japanese delegation to a United Nations Legal Sub Committee on Space.

Although this incident is not the first known case of a space debris strike, it is one of the first known incidents to involve injuries to humans.

1978 Russian Satellite Crashes in Canada

A second major crash of space junk over land occurs in 1978. Due to a malfunction, a Russian reconnaissance satellite moves itself to a 50 mile lower altitude, and operators cannot regain control. At this lower altitude, additional drag causes the satellite to orbit downward toward Earth. Orbital decay results in this satellite reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Friction causes heating of the satellite while passing through Earth’s atmosphere. This friction causes a warming event within Earth’s stratosphere.

Artist Sketch of Russian Cosmos 954, courtesy of NNSA US DOE under Public Domain

Because the onboard nuclear reactor (see artist sketch of Cosmos 954) does not separate from the satellite to orbit safely around Earth, the reactor and satellite pass together through Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry. Due to intense friction, Cosmos 954 breaks apart, strewing radioactive debris over northern Canada. Canada now has a burden of radioactive space debris clean up over ~48,000 square miles, of which only ~0.1% of the fuel is recovered.

Image of radioactive debris hunters, courtesy of Federal Government of the United States under Public Domain

Using hand-held detectors, a joint USA-Canada team walk on foot to find these radioactive debris pieces (see image of hunters). Ultimately, they collect 12 large pieces, ten of which are radioactive. One has a radioactivity reading of 500 rem/hr. In comparison, a human body receives around 1 rem dosage from a single whole body CT scan; if the scan lasts one hour, then this rate would be 1 rem/hr. At a rate of 500 rem/hr, any unprotected human handling this radioactive debris piece for a few hours would eventually die. Bottom line is to not pick up any space debris, as debris may be highly radioactive and could kill you after a few hours of exposure.

1979 USA Space Station Skylab Crash in Australia

Another major crash of space junk over land occurs in 1979. This crash comes from Skylab, which is an orbiting USA space station. Because Skylab does not have means to boost itself into a higher orbit, Skylab experiences orbital decay. Drag causes Skylab to gradually spiral inwards toward Earth. When eventually passing through Earth’s atmosphere, immense friction rubs on this space station. This rubbing leads to Skylab disintegrating over the Indian Ocean and Western parts of Australia. Space junk showers down on Earth as multi-colored burning debris, the largest chunk of which is an oxygen cylinder.

The short video below explains how this crash impacts peoples’ lives in Australia. As the video shows, much of Australia is in panic: Early preparations for this space debris crash includes a gross distribution of hard hats to city dwellers for protection. No reports of debris striking a human are found. However, some reports are of a fantastic fireworks display.

As a joke, NASA is given a fine of $400 for littering under the United Nations Treaty on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Debris. Although NASA did not pay, a crowd funding-type source raised the money in California to pay the fine.

1987 Soviet Rocket Debris Crash in California, USA

Image of Kosmos rocket courtesy of Dmitry Shipulja under CC0 1.0

In 1987, a retired aircraft mechanic hears a gunshot sound near his home in Lakeport, California, USA, which is in the northern part of the state. Upon exiting into an alley near his home, he finds a 7 ft long metallic piece of space junk; the crash is the source of the loud noise. No damage is reported.

Air force analysis of the space debris reveals the original source to be a Soviet Kosmos rocket. The image at left shows an example of this type of rocket.

1991 Soviet Space Station Debris Falls on Argentina

Image of debris from Salyut 7, courtesy of Carloszelayeta under CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1991, Russians lose control of a space station in low orbit. Although they try to guide the defunct space station to land in water, their attempts fail. The 88,000 pound Salyut 7 reenters Earth’s atmosphere and breaks up over many cities of Argentina. Residents report glowing trails like comet trails. Although many observe the break up, none report harm to humans.

The image at right shows some of this space debris. This space junk is from the Salyut 7 rocket.

Space Debris Strikes Two Different Woman in 1997

In 1997, Lottie Williams collides with a piece of space debris in Turley, Oklahoma, USA: While strolling through a park with friends, Ms. Williams sees a fireball streaking across the sky. She feels something hit her shoulder and hears a crash behind her; she turns to look when a fragment falls off her and strikes the ground.

This debris is about the weight of an empty soda can and, according to Lottie Williams, looks like fabric. The debris is from a United States Air Force delta 2 rocket and is possibly insulation that surrounds this rocket’s fuel tanks. Although not hurt, collisions of debris with humans are possible. She kept the debris as a souvenir.

Although this link states that Lottie Williams is the first hit by space debris, the authors do not mention the five injured on the deck of the Dai Chi Chinnei freighter in 1969 (see above). Not much is known about injuries to the five workers struck by space debris; however, these five would seem to be the first.

Ms. Williams is not the only one to be hit by space debris in 1997. A woman in Turkey claims to have been hit by a similar piece of charred woven space debris in January of that same year. Like the debris that hits Ms. Williams, this is likely from a insulation that surrounds a Delta 2 rocket. The woman in Turkey was hit on the head. As the space debris is light, she is not seriously injured.

Other Space Debris from Same Incident

Image of Pressurant Tank, courtesy of NASA under Public Domain

The rocket is reenters Earth’s atmosphere the night before Ms. Williams is struck. Although most debris burn up upon reentry, 20-40% usually survive passage through.

The image at left shows a 30 kg titanium propellant tank of the Delta 2 second stage rocket that has survived this passage. This space debris is found near Seguin, TX.

Image of Main Propellant Tank, courtesy of NASA under Public Domain

The image at right shows the main propellant tank of this same launch. This steel tank is also from the second stage of the Delta 2 vehicle. This space debris landed in Georgetown, TX, passing by a nearby farmhouse with residents at home.

This space debris weighs in at about 260 kg or about 580 lb. A comparable mass is around three male humans. Composition of this space debris is stainless steel.

2001 Rocket Upper Stage Strikes Saudi Arabia

Image of space debris landing in Saudi Arabia, courtesy of NASA under Public Domain

In 2001, a rocket stage module crashes into a Saudi Arabian desert. The image at right shows this massive and large space junk that fell from the sky.

This space junk is from a Star 48 Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D module. It is from an upper stage rocket that was carrying a GPS satellite into space. Specifically, it is the propellant’s motor casing that is made of titanium. Its weight is about 154 pounds.

2002 Space Debris Strikes Boy in China

In 2002, a six year old boy receives an injury from falling space debris while playing with other children under a persimmon tree according to the Beijing Youth Daily. Wu Fusheng, the boy’s father, says he heard thunder and saw a piece of metal falling from the sky. The debris hits the persimmon tree before falling onto his son. Wu Jie suffers a fractured toe and a lump on the head.

A 10 kg block of aluminum is the offending space debris. It is from a crash that should have landed in an uninhabited mountain area in Shanyang County. Instead, due to weather, the crash occurs near a village in a remote area of Shaanxi province. The debris wafts a gunpowder-like smell and smoke into the village, resulting in evacuation. Analysis of 19 metal fragments reveal that the space debris is from the outer shell of the Resource Second Satellite. This satellite breaks apart due to friction upon reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.

2003 NASA Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Sometimes space debris occurs when least expected. An example of this least expectation is the 1981 break up of NASA’s space shuttle Columbia, which had a good record prior to 1981.

Image of NASA Columbia Space Shuttle on a launch in 1981, courtesy of NASA under Public Domain

The early days of space shuttle Columbia are bright: The image at right shows the space shuttle Columbia on a launch in 1981, which ends with an unpowered successful landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California, USA. This launch and return demonstrate reusage of a shuttle for the future, saving on costs. Unfortunately, this shuttle’s life would dramatically end twenty-two years later.

In 2003, NASA’s space shuttle Columbia breaks apart into more than 84,000 pieces upon reentry. Upon launch, a piece of foam insulation breaks off, striking a wing of the shuttle, damaging it. This wing damage is a cause of this shuttle’s break up upon reentry.

This shuttle’s space debris lands in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, USA, over an area around 2000 square miles. One foot long metal bracket crashes through a roof of a dentist’s office in Nacogdoches, Texas, USA. Many other small machinery pieces, and a few large pieces up to 3 feet wide, strew across the same town, on the town’s airport runway and in a bank parking lot, for example. No report is found of anyone being struck by any of the falling debris.

2008 US Navy Intercepts Wayward Spy Satellite

In 2008, the US Navy intercepts and shoots down non-functioning spy satellite USA-193. This satellite needs to be intercepted as it carries a tank of hydrazine, which is toxic. If the tanks strike Earth, the collision could disperse a cloud of toxic gas over an area of about two football fields.

Image courtesy of US DOD under Public Domain

In February 2008, Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser Lake Erie intercepts USA-193 about 150 miles above Maui, Hawaii, USA. With a direct hit, most of the fuel tank and satellite shatter into small pieces. The image at left shows the break up of satellite as viewed from ground. A trail of debris streams over Hawaii, northwestern USA, and Canada, according to ground observers and amateur astronomers. Comet-like debris trails light up skies that are seen by many.

Destruction of the satellite creates about 174 pieces of debris that is collected over many months. According to Department of Defense officials, nothing has been found but nothing larger than a football.

2011 Zenit-3F Rocket Crash in Wyoming

Image of a Zenit-3SLB courtesy of Mr. Sirus Iton under GNU Free Documentation License

In 2011, a hiker in Wyoming, USA hears an odd noise overhead of the calm prairie. Robert Dunn stumbles upon a three foot wide, one foot deep crater that seems to be have been made by an impact from a nearby 30 inch spherical metal object. The orb is still warm to touch according to Robert Dunn in an account to the Colorado Craig Daily Press. Thus, the crash must have been recent.

The hiker contacts NASA and learns that the orb must be piece from a Ukranian Zenit-3F rocket that launched in January of that same year. The 32 kg titanium sphere is from a Zenit-3 SLBF; an image of the rocket is shown at right.

2016 Vega Flight VV01 Crash Lands Over India

Image of Vega VV01 courtesy of ESA under CC BY-SA 2.0

Maiden flight of Vega (Vettore Europeo di Generazione Avanzata) is a European advanced generation carrier. It is an expendable launch system of the Italian Space Agency (ISA) in joint with the European Space Agency (ESA), with Italy taking point. The image below shows the rocket on the launch pad.

In 2012, Vega VV01 takes its maiden voyage. In November 2016, it reenters over Tamil Nadu, a state of India as reported in The Indian Express. According to reports by several residents of Koothampoondi, a cylindrical metallic object falls from the sky; authorities suggest the space junk was once a part of a rocket fuel tank. Further analysis identifies the space junk as a composite over-wrapped pressure vessel (COPV).

2020 Chinese Rocket Booster Crashes in West Africa

Image of Long March 5B rocket courtesy of 篁竹水声 under CC BY 4.0

In 2020, a Long March 5B Chinese rocket crash lands in West Africa. This rocket is one of China’s most massive and largest. The image at left shows a Long March 5 rocket at the 101 launch site of Wenchang Spacecraft launch center, which is located in Wenchang, Hainan, China. This rocket is one of China’s largest and most massive to break up and become out-of-control space debris.

Local news from Côte d’Ivoire, a West African country, report metallic objects falling from the sky. These metallic objects are from the core of the rocket. Normally the core falls back to Earth shortly after launch. However, this core reached low Earth orbit, orbiting for a week. Its chaotic orbit resulted in a path over heavily populated cities like Los Angeles and New York City in the USA.

Pictures on social media posts show large metallic debris that has landed near Mahounou in Côte d’Ivoire. Villagers report loud sonic booms and flashes of light, in addition to falling metallic debris at a time when this rocket is predicted to have passed overhead. Social media posts include finding a 40 ft piece of pipe from the rocket that fell on a cheesemakers business. Reports include strikes of other debris to a home in N’guinou village. No injuries are reported, though.

Apparently, China launches rockets over land, not water, like those from the USA. With large rockets carrying heavy space station modules into orbit that will likely not disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere after separation, more incidents like this are expected. This likelihood is worrisome due to the trajectory of this large, massive space debris flying over large, inhabited USA cities.

2020 Space X Rocket Debris In Australia

In 2020, debris from a Space X rocket strews across remote paddocks in the Snowy Mountains area of New South Wales, which is in the southeastern part of Australia. Sheep farmers in Dalgety, Australia report finding an alien-like obelisk. This debris is a true find according to The Australian Space Agency. The video below shows this alien obelisk debris that lands on an Australian farm.

As seen, scorching metal has turned this debris black. This debris is from a SpaceX spacecraft that was launched in November 2020. Twenty months later, when passing through Earth’s atmosphere on its return to Earth, it breaks apart. Reports from ground include audio and visual reports by locals in this Snowy Mountains area.

Besides this piece in this image, two other space junk pieces are also recovered.

2021 Space X Debris in Washington State, USA

In March 2021, a second stage from a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket reenters Earth’s atmosphere uncontrollably over the state of Washington, USA. Normally, a rocket engine reignites and gently pushes the rocket to a lower orbit for a safe landing in water. However, after this launch, the engine does not have enough fuel to perform the task. Thus, fuel is vented, and the rocket reenters Earth’s atmosphere uncontrollably.

Image shows A Falcon 9 rocket launch, courtesy of U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker under Public Domain

The image at left shows a Falcon 9 rocket launch on November 11, 2019, which is a similar to the March 4, 2021 launch. Both launches are carrying Starlink broadband network satellites to low Earth orbit.

Three weeks after the March 4, 2021 launch, the second stage falls uncontrollably to Earth. It reenters over populated areas in Portland, Oregon and Washington states in USA. Night videos taken from ground show this space junk’s return to Earth. As seen in this video and in this 5 minute newscast, this space junk looks like fireworks (with no sounds) or a Roman candle. The newscaster states that no one is any danger; however, the large and massive rocket engine and COPV could remain intact instead of burning up over the Rocky Mountains and Canada upon reentry.

According to the Tri-City Herald, the ~5 foot COPV leaves a 4-inch deep hole in the ground upon collision in a farm in Washington state. A news website shows this blackened COPV space debris. Days later, similar charred debris is found on a beach in Oregon by a fisherman according to a report in the Oregonian. No injuries have been reported.

2022 Chinese Wentian Module Crash Into Ocean

On July 31, 2022, the Chinese Manned Space Agency launches a rocket carrying a Chinese Wentian module toward the orbit of the future Tiangong space station. The image below shows this rocket launch in July 2022.

Image of China’s Wentian rocket launch in July 2022, courtesy of 中新网 under CC BY 3.0

Most booster stages of rockets drop back to Earth shortly after launch and jettison. However, the core stage of this Chinese Long March 5B rocket stays with the payload until reaching the orbit of the future Tiangong space station.

As the orbit of disengagement is in space, this core stage now becomes space debris. Normally, large rockets fire their engine after releasing their payload to direct their descent back to Earth and toward a desired landing area. However, this 10 story, 23 ton core stage does not have thrusters and thus cannot control reentry. This very large, very massive core stage begins to fall uncontrollably to Earth. Unknown is where this space debris would reenter Earth’s atmosphere and ultimately land.

Although this space debris reenters over the Indian ocean, unknown is whether the debris would land in the Indian Ocean, in the Atlantic Ocean, or on land in between. With 20%-40% of the 23 ton core stage expected to survive reentry, this free-falling object could do significant damage upon collision with Earth’s surface.

The short video below shows the orbit of core stage, with the Eastern USA, Australia, South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe in the path. Although much water is in this stage’s path, much land is as well. Luckily, the remnants landed without drama in the Indian Ocean, about 10 days after launch.

Odds of Space Debris Hitting You

Odds are low that space debris will hit you. However, a chance does exist that the debris could hit something like a building in a populated area. This chance is about 1 in 3200 according to Mark Matney, a scientist in the Orbital Debris Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center. European Space Agency (ESA) has an even lower risk calculation: 1 in 100 billion

For the 1979 Skylab plummeting to Earth incident, NASA predicts the odds of space debris hitting a city to be 1 in 7. Even lower are the odds of space debris hitting a human in 1979, which are 1 in 152. Factors going into these calculations include amount of falling debris, distribution of human population in area where debris is likely to land, and latitudes of satellites.

A new study in 2021 at the University of British Columbia, Canada, finds a 1 in 10 chance of a space debris strike to a populated area in the next decade. Lead researcher Michael Byers finds this high risk is for damage to a human or damage to property. They use two approaches in their analysis: One is studying low Earth orbit space debris orbital paths over populated areas that has a high potential of spiraling into Earth over the next decade. A second is looking at rates of space debris incidents over time and making future predictions. Combing the results leads to the 1 in 10 chance.

As seen by our brief study of space debris crashes above, duration between incidents is becoming shorter over time. Therefore, incidents of space junk crashes to inhabited lands are becoming more frequent. As Byers et al. conclude, we should anticipate a space debris incident to a populated area in the next decade.


A comment made by Gamaliel Aaron at our YouTube channel AstroPictionary on space debris asked “Is there more space debris from satellites or meteorites?” Since the question mentions meteorites, we assume the land surface is Earth. If the timeline is since Earth’s terrestrial surface solidified, then meteorites would be the answer. If the timeline is about the last 40 years or so, then as about 500 meteorites reach Earth’s surface each year and one space debris incident could distribute thousands of debris, the answer would be space debris from man-made launched objects.

Bottom Line

Although probability is low, a chance does exist for a strike in a populated area. Like the lottery, odds of winning are low; however, eventually someone does win. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before someone in a populated area will be stricken by space debris. As such, I highly recommend looking up when you hear a sonic boom or other indications of debris crashing through Earth’s low altitude atmosphere on its way to Earth’s ground. If you see or hear any indications of space debris falling nearby, immediately seek shelter to lowest level and most interior room until safe.

If you find space debris, do not touch it. It could be highly radioactive. Note its location and, if possible, keep a distant watch over the debris until proper authorities arrive. Since radioactivity or toxic levels are unknown, leaving the area is wisest but note location of debris.

Keep in mind that the debris has an owner. The owner is those that launched the original object into space. However, you can always try and negotiate a finder fee 🙂

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About the author

Michele M. Montgomery earned a B.S. Degree in Nuclear/Mechanical Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University, an M.S. Degree in Physics from The University of Alabama with a concentration in Solar Physics, and a Ph.D Degree in Physics from Florida Institute of Technology with a concentration in close binary star systems. She joined the faculty at The University of Central Florida Physics Department in 2004 where she regularly taught astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. In 2006, she noticed that a large, urban college nearby to UCF did not teach astronomy at one of their largest campuses. She began teaching astronomy at this East Campus of Valencia College, a college that has more than 60,000 students; she still teaches four courses of astronomy each fall, spring, and summer semesters. The astronomy program atValencia College East has grown significantly with several more faculty added who teach astronomy.

By 2019, Dr. Montgomery has taught astronomy to more than 10,000 college and university students, both online and face-to-face. Many of her students have gone on to take her astrobiology, astrophysics, and space physics courses. 

By 2016, Dr. Montgomery had co-authored several astronomy texts and quiz/exam banks. Her work appears in several domestic and international astronomy text books (e.g., Horizons by Cengage, Universe by Cengage, Foundations of Astronomy by Cengage) that are used both at the higher education as well as at the high school levels. Starting in Fall 2019, Dr. Montgomery switched gears to authoring digital textbooks and research full time, while still teaching 12 courses of astronomy and up to eight conceptual, algebra, and/or calculus-based physics courses each year. Her research interests are numerical simulations using Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics of close binary star systems. She also regularly is granted telescope time on the NASA's Kepler space telescope for observing eclipsing binary star systems. She has also observed using Gemini South, Keck, and Kitt Peak ground-based telescopes. Her major teaching areas are Astronomy, Astrobiology, Astrophysics, Cosmology, Space Weather/Space Physics.