A one-and-a-half ton rocket stage that launched to orbit over 42 years ago has finally returned to Earth. Well, at least a few pieces of it likely made it to the ground after a fiery descent through the atmosphere early Monday.
The Soviet Vostok-2M Blok E rocket was used to launch a surveillance satellite in 1980 and then essentially abandoned to orbit our planet indefinitely, as was fairly common practice in that era.
“It’s been totally dead since mid 1980, so no way to control the reentry,” astronomer and leading orbit watcher Jonathan McDowell explained on Twitter. “Eventually the orbit shrank due to friction with the atmosphere.”
The Aerospace Corporation also tracked the rocket body’s re-entry, which happened over Novaya Zemlya in the far northern Arctic reaches of present day Russia.
McDowell says the rocket is massive enough that it’s likely some pieces of it survived to impact the surface, but it’s probably they are somewhere either in the Russian wilderness or the Arctic Ocean.
The 3,000 pound rocket is big enough to keep an eye on during re-entry, but not nearly as much an object of concern as the large Chinese Long March rockets which weigh upwards of 20 tons and have made a handful of uncontrolled and concerning re-entries in recent years.
Many modern rockets are equipped with propulsion systems that allow for them to be steered toward controlled re-entries, often aiming for vast unpopulated regions of the surface, like the south Pacific.
In a sense, the re-entry of the Soviet rocket — even out of control — makes orbit a bit safer by removing one large object from the near-Earth environment. If the rocket had been involved in a collision in orbit it could have broken up into hundreds or thousands of smaller pieces that themselves increase the risk of future collisions.
This cascading effect could lead to something called Kessler Syndrome, a worst case scenario in which orbit becomes so littered with debris that it is rendered too dangerous for satellites to navigate.
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