When the atmosphere isn't enough
by Staff Writers
Paris (ESA) Apr 21, 2021
Why has life flourished on Earth, but nowhere else - that we know of - in the Solar System? The answer is our delicately thin, but hugely consequential atmosphere. Ask the dinosaurs however, and they would say it's not to be relied upon. That's what ESA's Space Safety programme is working on, being there when the atmosphere isn't enough.
The Chicxulub impact some 66 million years ago shows us that enormous asteroids many kilometres in diameter survive the fiery journey through Earth's atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the entire planet.
Fortunately, these extinction-level space rocks are relatively easy to spot. In fact we know 98% of all those expected to be out there in the Solar System. None are due to impact Earth in the near- to medium-term future, but we want to find every last one.
Smaller asteroids, roughly 17-20 metres in diameter, don't necessarily survive impact with the atmosphere but can create an enormous air burst.
Such explosions in the sky can do a lot of damage, as the Chelyabinsk impact illustrated in 2013, injuring almost 1500 people and damaging more than 7000 buildings.
ESA's Planetary Defence Office is constantly determining the risk and likelihood of an asteroid impact, and in 2024 the Agency is set to launch Hera - Europe's first mission to test asteroid deflection.
Modernity is at the mercy of our raging Sun
In 1859 a solar flare struck Earth interfering with the technology of the day - namely telegraph wires - causing disruption and some injuries as well as auroras as far south as the equator. The event became known as the Carrington event, and if such a storm should strike Earth today we would be greatly more vulnerable.
Power grids, satellite navigation and communication services, weather services including predictions of extreme weather events, could all be unavailable. One recent study estimated the economic cost to Europe of such an event, happening in 2024, at more than 20 billion euros.
ESA's Space Weather Office is like Europe's stellar agony aunt, offering forecasts, advice and information for any organisation, individual or institution vulnerable to space weather. In the next few years, ESA will launch a space weather warning mission that will monitor the Sun, giving us advance time to act.
Space debris is rubbish
While not directly putting life on Earth at risk, the continued growth of debris threatens our future in space and everything that relies on it. Fortunately, we can use the atmosphere to help us clean up.
The atmosphere plays a vital role in limiting the amount of time objects spend in orbit. International guidelines recommend no spacecraft is in orbit for longer than 25 years after its mission ends, which is an effective space debris mitigation measure. Controlled re-entries can be used to speed up a satellite's return to Earth, as well as ensuring larger objects re-enter the atmosphere safely over uninhabited regions.
ESA's Space Debris Office is working to protect our spacecraft from in-orbit collision, as well as adhering to and building on international standards for reducing debris in space. In parallel, the Clean Space Office is working to limit the impact to our environment of space activity, as well as commissioning the world's first space debris removal mission.
Events to look out for
20 - 23 Apr 2021 - ESA's 8th European Conference on Space Debris
26 - 30 April 2021 - IAA Planetary Defense Conference
Hosted by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and ESA, this year's conference will see another hypothetical "live asteroid impact" played out. Last year, New York was wiped out as part of the deflected asteroid remained on collision course. Join us on @esaoperations for live coverage of this year's asteroid exercise and lessons learnt.
May 2021 - Launch of ESA's no-name mission campaign
June 2021 - ESA Space Safety digital festival
30 June 2021 - Asteroid Day
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