What Do Jordan Peele and Chinese Rockets Have in Common?
August 19, 2022
I recently sat down for a screening of Jordan Peele’s latest sci-fi thriller, Nope – and there’s a lot to talk about.
Essentially, the movie follows a brother/sister duo as they encounter an extraterrestrial visitor on their family's ranch. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, we see something that I already think about way too much given my line of work: things falling from the sky.
While space is still a bit of an abstract concept for many, this is the kind of stuff I think about and work around all day, everyday. As an astrodynamicist, my job is to figure out why and how things in space are moving the way they do.
When I go to work, I’m analyzing the trajectories of satellites and other objects in space to ensure they don’t run into each other, amongst other things. With hundreds of thousands of objects in Earth’s orbit ranging from the size of a speck of paint to a rocket, tracking this stuff can get a bit tricky.
That’s why I created Privateer’s Wayfinder application, which essentially aggregates orbital data from different sources to identify where any given object was located, and where it might be heading.
Basically, Wayfinder is the Waze of space.
Now that you have that context, I want to get back to the scene in Nope. Without giving too much away, it’s important to note that the objects falling from the sky didn’t technically come from space – which means that they shouldn’t be considered space debris.
But that visual still inspires the question: what is the likelihood of something falling from the sky and hitting a person?
While most things that reenter Earth’s orbit tend to burn up in the atmosphere, or end up falling into the ocean, we’re seeing more and more space junk end up in our backyards. According to a recent study led by researchers at the University of British Columbia, there is an appreciable chance that someone on Earth will be lethally hit by debris re-entering Earth's atmosphere within the next decade.
Just a few weeks ago, a falling Chinese rocket body was already seen lighting up the sky in Malaysia.
Last month, we also saw space debris from a SpaceX rocket land on an Australian farm.
The reality is, people need to get used to the idea that things are going to be reentering Earth’s atmosphere more frequently – and not all of those things are going to be burning up. In fact, the rocket bodies we send up are purposely made not to burn up in the atmosphere. This is especially scary, considering they’re typically the size of a school bus or larger.
That said, we shouldn’t lose all hope.
Around 2015, I coined the term Space Environmentalist after having a very deep spiritual epiphany in Alaska. It was at that moment that I began thinking of space as its own ecosystem, connected and linked to the others. Similar to how we think of the ocean, I began to see space as a finite resource that needed to be properly managed. Unfortunately, up until now, legislation around space has been a bit… lax and complicated to say the least.
Luckily, more and more people are beginning to develop a sense of empathy for space – causing them to want to protect it. On the policy side, the United States recently released The National Orbital Debris Implementation Plan, which focuses on a few areas related to what Privateer is trying to do in terms of space safety, security, and sustainability. I believe that this is a step in the right direction – showing that our governments are beginning to take these issues more seriously.
Looking to the future, I hope that more money and resources are allocated to orbital debris research. I also want to see more cooperation between private entities, government agencies, and academia, the last being critical to research and development.
If we want to protect our planet, and maintain our access to space,
we’re going to have to continue taking this more seriously.