Space debris is an ‘increasing issue’ for Earth. What Canada is doing now

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Space junk fell on a Canadian farm and SpaceX wants it back, but who’s liable?
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The Canadian Space Agency says it takes the issue of space debris “very seriously” and is working to ensure it doesn’t pose any “major risks” to Earth after a piece of orbital junk was recently discovered in rural Saskatchewan.

The incident, which experts say was likely linked to a SpaceX spacecraft, is being looked into by government officials, said Stéphanie Durand, vice-president of the CSA’s space program policy.

“The Canadian Space Agency takes the issue of space debris very seriously,” Durand said in an interview with Global News Monday.

“With the increase in space traffic, space debris is an increasing issue, that we are all working very closely with national and international partners to find solutions to manage.”

In any case of space debris making its way to Earth, Durand said Canada works in collaboration with the country where the debris originates from.

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“So right now, the Department of Global Affairs is leading the followup activities, following that incident (in Saskatchewan),” she said.

Global Affairs Canada did not respond to questions from Global News about the debris incident by the time of publication.

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Deadly risks of falling space junk on the rise according to Canadian study

This latest incident near Ituna, Sask., adds to a growing number of cases of space junk falling to Earth in recent years. In March, one object crashed through the roof of a Florida home and in 2022, chunks of debris were also found on farmland in Australia.

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Since Dec. 20, 2023, there have been about 36,000 space objects flying in low Earth orbit, the CSA’s Durand said.

She said there are international guidelines and standards in place to limit space debris and those principles are used by Canada and other countries.

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Durand said Canada regulates Canadian in-space activities, such as radio communication and remote sensing, but it does not regulate the conduct of other countries.

So, if a foreign space object lands on Canadian territory, Canada then notifies the originating state, which is responsible for the object’s retrieval.

In addition, there are also mechanisms to ensure proper monitoring and risk mitigation.

“Our goal is to ensure that space debris does not pose any major risks to Earth,” Durand said.

“This will be work that we will continue to do in close collaboration with Global Affairs, Department of National Defence, Public Safety in how we manage and track debris,” she added.

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Is it acceptable to let space debris fall anywhere on Earth?

The risk of space debris hitting someone on the ground is relatively low. All launches in the U.S., for example, fall under the Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, which require the risk of a casualty from a re-entering rocket body to be below a one in 1,000 threshold.

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Durand said most space debris disintegrates and burns up when re-entering the atmosphere, but in the off-chance that space junk does re-enter Earth, then first responders and public safety will step in.

The issue of space debris was among the talking points at the Artemis Accords workshop hosted by Canada last week.

Representatives from 24 countries met in Longueuil, Que., from May 21 to 23 to discuss principles for safe, transparent and sustainable space exploration activities.

Established in October 2020, the Artemis Accords are a set of non-binding principles, guidelines and best practices for civil space exploration.

They are essentially created to “help avoid conflict in space and on Earth,” according to NASA.

A total of 40 countries have now signed on to the Accords that are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Among several principles outlined, the Artemis Accords reinforce peaceful exploration, transparency, emergency assistance, preservation of outer space heritage and safe disposal of orbital debris.

— with files from Global News’ Sean Previl and The Canadian Press

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