A large piece of junk from the International Space Station hurtles back to Earth

Zoom in / In March 2021, the International Space Station's robotic arm released a charging pad containing nine depleted batteries.

NASA

A group of spent batteries from the International Space Station orbited Earth for about three years before deorbiting and reentering the atmosphere on Friday. Most of the waste was likely burned during reentry, but some fragments may have reached the Earth's surface intact.

Larger pieces of space junk regularly fall to Earth in undirected paths, but they are usually abandoned satellites or spent rocket stages. This included a platform of batteries from the space station with a mass of more than 2.6 metric tons (5,800 lb). NASA intentionally sent space junk on its way toward undirected reentry.

Naturally self-cleaning

Sandra Jones, a NASA spokeswoman, said the agency “conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the debris on the pad and determined that it would reenter the Earth's atmosphere without harm.” This was, by far, the largest object ever thrown from the International Space Station.

The batteries reentered the atmosphere at 2:29 p.m. EDT (1929 UTC), according to US Space Command. At that time, the pallet would have flown between Mexico and Cuba. “We don't expect any part to survive reentry,” Jones told Ars.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also monitored the path of the battery platform. In a statement this weekThe European Space Agency said the risk of someone being hit by a piece of the pallet was “very low” but said “some parts could reach the ground.” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who closely tracks spaceflight activity, estimated that about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of debris would hit the Earth's surface.

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“The general rule is that 20 to 40 percent of the mass of a large object will reach Earth, although this depends on the design of the object.” The space company says.

A dead European Space Agency satellite re-entered the atmosphere in a similarly uncontrollable manner on February 21. At 2.3 metric tons, this satellite was similar in mass to a discarded battery platform. The European Space Agency, which has positioned itself as a world leader in space sustainability, has created a website that provides daily updates to track the satellite's deteriorating orbit.

This map shows the path of the undirected shipping platform around Earth over a six-hour period on Friday.  It reentered the atmosphere near Cuba in a southwest-northeast direction.
Zoom in / This map shows the path of the undirected shipping platform around Earth over a six-hour period on Friday. It reentered the atmosphere near Cuba in a southwest-northeast direction.

As NASA and ESA officials have said, the risk of injury or death from the spacecraft returning to Earth is very low. Falling space debris has never killed anyone. According to the European Space Agency, a person's risk of being struck by a piece of space junk is about 65,000 times less than the risk of being struck by lightning.

This circumstance is unique in terms of the type and origin of the space debris, which is why NASA intentionally tossed it away on an uncontrolled path back to Earth.

The space station's robotic arm launched the battery charging pad on March 11, 2021. Since then, the batteries have drifted in orbit, orbiting the planet about every 90 minutes. Over the course of months and years, the LEO self-cleans thanks to the effect of aerodynamic drag. Resistance from rarefied air molecules in low Earth orbit gradually slowed the platform's speed until gravity finally returned it to the atmosphere on Friday.

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The cargo platform, which was launched inside a Japanese HTV cargo ship in 2020, carried six new lithium-ion batteries to the International Space Station. The station's two-armed Dextre robot, which assisted astronauts during spacewalks, replaced old nickel-hydrogen batteries with the upgraded units. Nine of the old batteries were mounted on the HTV charging platform before being launched from the station's robotic arm.

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