Space Junk

NASA Confirms that a Piece of its Battery Pack Smashed into a Florida Home

NASA is in the business of launching things into orbit. But what goes up must come down, and if whatever is coming down doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere, it will strike Earth somewhere.

Even Florida isn’t safe.

Careful consideration goes into releasing debris from the International Space Station. Its mass is measured and calculated so that it burns up during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. But in March 2024, something didn’t go as planned.

It all started in 2021 when astronauts replaced the ISS’s nickel hydride batteries with lithium-ion batteries. It was part of a power system upgrade, and the expired batteries added up to about 2,630 kg (5,800 lbs.) On March 8th, 2021, ground controllers used the ISS’s robotic arm to release a pallet full of the expired batteries into space, where orbital decay would eventually send them plummeting into Earth’s atmosphere.

The Canadarm 2 robotic arm releases a pallet of spent batteries into space on March 8th, 2021. Image Credit: NASA

It was the most massive debris release from the ISS. According to calculations, it should have burned up when it entered the atmosphere on March 8th, 2024. But it didn’t.

Alejandro Otero owns a home in Naples, Florida. He wasn’t home on March 8th when there was a loud crash as something smashed into his roof. But his son was. “It was a tremendous sound. It almost hit my son,” Otero told CNN affiliate WINK News in March. “He was two rooms over and heard it all.”

“Something ripped through the house and then made a big hole in the floor and on the ceiling,” Otero explained. “I’m super grateful that nobody got hurt.”

This time, nobody got hurt. But NASA is taking the accident seriously.

Otero cooperated with NASA, and NASA examined the object at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They determined the debris was from a stanchion used to mount the old batteries on a special cargo pallet.

This image shows an intact stanchion and the recovered stanchion from the NASA flight support equipment used to mount International Space Station batteries on a cargo pallet. The stanchion survived re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere on March 8, 2024, and impacted a home in Naples, Florida. Image Credit: NASA

The stanchion is made of the superalloy Inconel to understand extreme environments, including extreme heat. It weighs 725 grams (1.6 lbs.) It’s about 10 cm (4 inches) in height and 4 cm (1.6 inches) in diameter.

Even though it’s a tiny object, it’s the type of accident that NASA and the ISS are determined to avoid. “The International Space Station will perform a detailed investigation of the jettison and re-entry analysis to determine the cause of the debris survival and to update modelling and analysis, as needed,” a NASA statement read.

Investigators want to know how the debris survived without burning up on re-entry. Engineers use models to understand how objects react to re-entry heat and break apart, and this event will refine those models. In fact, every time an object reaches the ground, the models are updated.

For Otero, this accident amounted to little more than a great story and an insurance claim. But the chunk of stanchion could’ve seriously injured someone or even killed someone.

In January 1997, Lottie Williams was walking through a park with friends in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early morning. They saw a huge fireball in the sky and felt a rush of excitement, thinking they were seeing a shooting star. “We were stunned, in awe,” Williams told FoxNews.com. “It was beautiful.”

Then, something struck her lightly on the shoulder before falling to the ground. It was like a piece of metallic fabric, and after reaching out to some authorities, she learned that it was part of a fuel tank from a Delta II rocket. She’s the first person known to have been hit with space debris. Had it been something with more mass, who knows if Williams would’ve been injured or worse?

That’s why NASA takes debris survival so seriously. The guilt of injuring or even killing someone would be overwhelming. A serious debris accident could also make things very uncomfortable going forward, as people can be fickle and not prone to critical thinking. NASA’s already struggling with budget constraints; the organization doesn’t need any nasty public relations to imperil its progress further.

Complicating matters is that the ESA warned that not all the battery debris would burn up. There wasn’t much else they could do. Fluctuating atmospheric drag made it impossible to predict where debris would strike Earth.

Those who follow space know how complicated and unpredictable this is. And they likewise know how improbable an injury is. But there’s always a non-zero chance of injury or death from space debris for someone going about their life here on the Earth’s surface. If that ever happened, the scrutiny would be intense.

Is it statistical fear-mongering to consider space debris striking someone, injuring them, or worse? Probably. When we see a shooting star in the sky, it’s safe to enjoy the spectacle without worry.

But maybe, just in case, out of an abundance of caution, Don’t Look Up.

Evan Gough

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