The impending crash of Russia's Mir Space Station should be of little worry to Earthlings as it heads for an expected fiery ending in the southern Pacific Ocean on Friday, according to CU-Boulder aerospace engineering Professor Robert Culp.
Culp, one of the world's experts in space debris and orbital mechanics, said Russian scientists have been controlling the fall of Mir with rocket thrusters. This is unlike the highly publicized crash of NASA's Skylab in 1979, when scientists could only predict it would hit Earth somewhere between Indonesia and South America. It wound up crashing in the Australian Outback, injuring no one.
"I don't think people understand that one would have been in more danger of being hit by lightning in Florida than being hit by Skylab, which was totally out of control," he said. "In the case of Mir, it is still under control and the Russian scientists should be able to drop it into the ocean with no problem."
Even if Mir were out of control, "the threat to humans would still be very low," Culp said. "Two-thirds of the planet consists of ocean, and the odds of a satellite hitting a populated area are one in thousands, and of hitting a human, one in millions."
All spaceborne objects sent up by scientists to orbit Earth eventually come down, almost always burning up in the atmosphere, said Culp. "The real problem with space debris still in orbit is untrackable pieces the size of a pop can or smaller, which can threaten spacewalking astronauts, satellites and the space shuttles."
Culp has spent much of his career modeling the orbit and decay of such "untrackables." CU-Boulder has the only graduate program in space debris in the nation and has placed dozens of graduates in jobs with NASA and aerospace companies.
For more information, contact Culp at (303) 492-7974 or Jim Scott in the CU-Boulder News Office at (303) 492-3114.