The Brian Mudd Show

The Brian Mudd Show

There are two sides to stories and one side to facts. That's Brian's mantra and what drives him to get beyond the headlines.Full Bio


Q&A – NASA’s Space Junk Removal Policy

Q&A – NASA’s Space Junk Removal Policy  

Each day I feature a listener question sent by one of these methods.       


Social: @brianmuddradio     

iHeartRadio: Use the Talkback feature – the microphone button on our station’s page in the iHeart app.        

Today’s Entry: Submitted via talkback asking about recent space debris which struck a house in Naples, Florida.  

Bottom Line: Yes, what you heard was correct and yes, believe it or not, what NASA did was all part of the plan – right up to the point where debris made it into Earth’s atmosphere striking a house in Naples. The event actually happened over a month ago, on March 8th at 2:34 in the afternoon. That was when a homeowner in Naples reported that an object fell through the sky with enough force that it came through the roof of his home causing significant damage. In response to a post on X by astronomer Jonathan McDowell stating this: The EP-9 equipment pallet reentered at 1929 UTC over the Gulf of Mexico between Cancun and Cuba. This was within the previous prediction window but a little to the northeast of the 'most likely' part of the path. A couple minutes later reentry and it would have reached Ft Myers. In response to that tweet the homeowner responded to him with this: Hello. Looks like one of those pieces missed Ft Myers and landed in my house in Naples. Tore through the roof and went thru 2 floors. Almost (hit) my son. Can you please assist with getting NASA to connect with me? I’ve left messages and emails without a response. He posted pics of the damage and the debris as well.  

It was a story that made local news on Florida’s Gulf coast at the time but by April began to catch attention more broadly. That’s because NASA picked up the foreign object from the homeowner and began to investigate it. Earlier this week, NASA confirmed the item was in fact space debris from the International Space Station which is when the story became worldwide news. So, what exactly happened here, why did it happen, and could it happen again? As you might imagine there’s a considerable backstory here.  

The event actually began three years ago, and the reentry of the space junk happened almost three years to the day that it was first sent into orbit. For most of NASA’s history the intentional disposal of space junk had primarily taken place on earth. That is, when it came to the intentional disposal of waste, NASA astronauts packed up the space debris and brought it back home. Most recently that had been taking place using SpaceX’s Dragon rockets which would bring space junk back to earth, with Northrop Grumman (or Russia based upon circumstances) then taking the space debris and disposing of it. However, rather than further polluting this planet with space debris, there had become an increased emphasis on attempting to sustainably disperse it in space. 

On March 11th, 2021 a pallet of batteries totaling 5,800 pounds used by the International Space Station was intentionally thrown into orbit by the space station’s robotic arm. NASA’s belief was that the batteries would eventually make their way towards Earth’s atmosphere but that they’d burn up upon reentry. The day that they did eventually reenter Earth’s atmosphere was March 8th and it almost all went according to plan. Of the 5,800 pounds of batteries, all did burn up except a 1.8-pound fragment. Even then it wouldn’t have been such a big deal had it landed harmlessly somewhere. Obviously, it didn’t. Thankfully no one was hurt, but obviously someone could be in the future should something similar happen. So, what went wrong here?  

Scientists had previously used the technique they used with these batteries successfully. On the surface it makes sense. Why pollute Earth with space junk when you can have it incinerated outside of our atmosphere instead? What appears to have happened here was a slight miscalculation. The battery pallet was the largest collection of space debris that had ever been attempted to be disposed of this way. On March 8th, both NASA and the European Space Agency observed the reentry of the debris. They also observed a small object make it through. This is why when the report from the homeowner in Naples became public NASA stepped in to investigate it and eventually to authenticate it. As for whether this could happen again and what’s being done about it. Somewhat ironically the government has been working on a plan to address the problem that just happened, but that was set in motion two years ago. 

On July 28th, of 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (a NOAA agency) released what was called the National Orbital Debris Mitigation Plan. The plan included remediation efforts for existing orbital space debris in addition mitigation efforts to reduce it in the future. As is noted in the introduction to the new protocol

  • Orbital debris, sometimes referred to as “space junk,” is defined as human-made, non-functional objects—including fragments and elements thereof—that exist in Earth orbits or are re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. This definition is consistent with SPD-3, issued in May 2018, which stated “Orbital debris, or space debris, shall mean any human-made space object orbiting Earth that no longer serves any useful purpose.” 

From there it tasked NASA and related agencies to come up with best practices for remediation and mitigation in can imagine not repeating the circumstances that led to the battery reentry event will be one of them. 

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