• Ad Astra
  • Posts
  • Space junk from the ISS may have hit someone's house | Space News from Ad Astra

Space junk from the ISS may have hit someone's house | Space News from Ad Astra

Also, the latest eclipse cloud cover map isn't promising.

In this week’s edition of space news from Ad Astra:


International Space Station trash may have hit someone’s home

Let’s start with a weird and disturbing story. As first reported by Annalise Iraola at WINK News, a piece of space junk discarded from the International Space Station may have hit and damaged someone’s home. 

Stephen Clark at Ars Technica has a great in-depth report on this, but basically what happened was that on March 8, homeowner, Alejandro Otero who was not home at the time, was contacted by his son, who said something from space basically landed on their house, ripping through the roof and both floors of his Naples, Florida home. It was cylindrical and appeared to be human made.

Credit: Alejandro Otero / X

Earlier that same day, almost three metric tons of space junk from the International Space Station entered the atmosphere in an uncontrolled re-entry. While space junk does often re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, it usually burns up. But this space junk contained a pallet of batteries that may have survived re-entry.

To be clear, that wasn’t the original disposal plan for these batteries. They were supposed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a controlled manner in the Japanese HTV cargo spacecraft they originally launched in. But in 2018, a launch failure of the Soyuz threw the battery installation schedule off. This meant that after all the Japanese HTV spacecraft had departed Space Station, there was still one battery pallet left. The ISS jettisoned the batteries in 2021, and they’ve been orbiting the Earth ever since and just now re-entered the atmosphere.

Battery pallet jettison, credit: NASA

It’s not great, frankly. I feel like more and more of my stories are about space junk, but it’s such a serious problem that we need to find a way to confront in a better way. Usually, NASA does require any launch provider it contracts with to leave enough rocket propellant available to be able to guide space junk away from the ISS, either in a controlled re-entry or just away from anything it could do damage to. What happened here is clearly is not standard for NASA, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t mess this one up.

The good thing is everyone knows it. NASA repeatedly assured everyone that no pieces of this debris would survive re-entry. Clearly they were wrong — experts did say that pieces would make it back to Earth because they were nickel-hydrogen batteries, and therefore too dense to burn up in the atmosphere completely.

So what’s next? NASA has the piece of debris, and they’re analyzing it. And hopefully they get someone out to fix Alejandro Otero’s home.

The eclipse weather forecast doesn’t look good

Moving onto eclipse news — it’s not great. Let’s be honest, if you’ve looked at a cloud cover forecast for the eclipse at ALL, you’ll know it’s pretty bad. Many of us made plans based on historic cloud cover, but now the forecast map for April 8 is basically the complete opposite of historical trends.

Historical cloud cover, credit: NOAA

This is the April 4 update from the National Weather Service.

According to this, there will be clouds along the bulk of the path of totality, with some breaks in between (but nothing is certain yet, it’s very possible some of these areas will have clouds as well.)

I’m heading to San Antonio, which basically looks like it has some of the worst possible cloud cover, so you might be asking at this point — should any of us try and change our plans to be somewhere with less cloud cover?

My personal answer is no. First, you’re not going to find any last minute lodging along the path of totality, most likely. (If you don’t have plans to be in totality, but you’d like to, I’d check some of these cloudy areas though because my guess is people will start canceling reservations.) It’s still hard to tell what will happen, I’d personally take the chance rather than upending everything at the last second — but everyone’s preferences are different.

Satellites may be visible during the eclipse

Speaking of the eclipse, a total eclipse is something that humans have experienced as long as we’ve been on this planet. But a new study pre-print looks at whether human activity might change this eclipse for people.

 I’ve talked a lot about problems with satellite pollution for night stargazing (remember Starlink photobombing my Northern Lights photo from Iceland?)

It’s a problem for ground-based astronomy — but it’s also a problem for space-based telescopes like Hubble. Now, a new preprint paper is asking whether satellites will be visible to the human eye during the 2024 eclipse.

This study focused on Starlink specifically, because these SpaceX satellites comprise almost 60% of the 9,500 active satellites in orbit. In order to make satellite brightness predictions, the paper authors look at the reflectiveness of the satellite, which is determined by many things, including the satellite’s surface area, the angle between the observer, the satellite, and the sun, and its range. 

Credit: Lawler et al., 2024

This plot shows the visibility for satellites during the eclipse for the Kingston, Ontario area. The lower the magnitude, the higher the brightness. It’s a complicated formula, because the paper authors have to take into account the fact that the normally brightest satellites will be in the moon’s shadow during the eclipse, but then they’ll reflect Earthshine. 

The bottom line: During the total eclipse, the sky won’t be as dark as nighttime, so they determine that there will likely not be any Starlink satellites visible to the unaided eye. However, other larger satellites may indeed be visible.

The Parker Solar Probe has a cool new video

For the first time, the Parker Solar Probe captured the interaction between a CME, or a coronal mass ejection — a powerful explosion of magnetic fields and plasma on the sun — and solar wind. The results were published in the Astrophysical Journal, and the video is pretty cool. This is in visible light with the Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR camera.

What you see is something scientists found surprising — the development of turbulence called Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities. You can think of these as the results of wind shear between low level and high level clouds within an atmosphere, but this is the first time we’re spotting them in solar weather. Also, the fact that they’re so large as to be present in a visible light image is really cool.

Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/WISPR team

You can see here on the right the CME moving fast….and then the solar wind moves in on the left. Notice on the right, towards the end, the box with the arrows — that’s the Kelvin Helmoltz instability. That final white streak is a line of solar plasma that’s left over after the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability.

Here’s another view of that instability from the journal article:

Credit: Paouris et al. 20254

Coordinated Lunar Time: Standardized time for the moon

You’ve heard of Coordinated Universal time or UTC — what about lunar standard time?

Credit: NASA

This week, the White House instructed NASA to establish a standard of time for the moon, what it’s calling Coordinated Lunar Time or LTC, according to Reuters. Just as atomic clocks on Earth measure UTC, this might require the placement of atomic clocks on the moon. This would be something the U.S. has to come to international agreement on.

Why do we need accurate lunar time? Well, as human activity on the moon increases, we need more precision. Things like GPS (which the moon doesn’t currently have) require a precise location, but they also need a precise time. The idea is that LTC would establish the precision necessary for things like synchronizing spacecraft, coordinating positions, and more.

Boeing Starliner’s new launch date

Credit: NASA/Boeing

Because I’ve been updating you on it, Boeing Starliner’s first crewed flight to the International Space Station has yet another launch date — no earlier than May 6. This is because of traffic and docking port availability at the International Space Station, not issues with the spacecraft that have been the problem in the past. This flight was initially supposed to launch in 2017, so I’d love for this date to stick. The mission will take two astronauts, Sunita Williams and Butch Wilmore, to the ISS for about a week.

The Space Force may resurrect a beloved NASA space telescope

An FYI for new subscribers — I post stories to the website during the week that don’t go out via email, but they’re always included at the bottom of my weekly space news roundups. Here’s my story from Tuesday on the Spitzer Resurrector mission.