SPACE DEBRISFalling Space Debris: How High Is the Risk I'll Get Hit?

By Zulfikar Abbany, Julia Vergin, and Katja Sterzik

Published 16 March 2024

An International Space Station battery fell back to Earth and, luckily, splashed down harmlessly in the Atlantic. Should we have worried? Space debris reenters our atmosphere every week.

It was an ordinary afternoon, March 7, 2024, until residents in Germany received a warning from the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance — abbreviated in German as BBK. It warned that fragments of space debris were expected to fly over Germany the following days, March 8-9.

Details were sparse from both the BKK and the European Space Agency.

Authorities expected a palette of nine batteries to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on an uncontrolled trajectory.

The total mass was to be in the region of 2.6 metric tons — the equivalent of 2,600 kilograms (about 5,730 pounds), or, as some have said, the size of a large car.

Most of the battery was expected to burn up on reentry, which is normal. However, it’s equally normal for some of these larger bits of space debris to survive and land — usually in the ocean.

And that’s exactly what happened on Friday evening. The German military’s space monitoring center said the bulk of the debris must have crashed in the Atlantic Ocean a little after 8 p.m. (1900 GMT/UTC). Around an hour earlier, people in some parts of central Germany could see a “bright trail” in the sky that was the falling debris, the agency said.

What’s the Risk of an Uncontrolled Reentry to Earth?
The ISS battery pack had a “natural” trajectory between -51.6 degrees south and 51.6 degrees north. Natural trajectory means “uncontrolled” — it is not guided by computers or humans on Earth.

Batteries cannot be navigated like satellites and other spacecraft, so they can only reenter Earth uncontrolled. This made it difficult to predict how the batteries would break up and where they would fall.

But even before most of the debris splashed down in the Atlantic, ESA assured that no one would likely be harmed. “While some parts may reach the ground, the casualty risk — the likelihood of a person being hit — is very low.”

In an email to DW, Germany’s BBK reiterated ESA’s risk assessment, adding only that they could not provide further advice to residents or suggest any protective measures that people could take before the “event” had happened.