On the Odds of Being Struck by Falling Satellites

UARS satellite before deployment. Photo credit: NASA Johnson Space Center.

NASA says the odds that someone will be struck by falling space debris when the bus-sized NASA Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite comes down this week is 1 in 3200. Which got me to thinking … if I was struck while out walking Friday night, would I be unusually lucky because I beat the odds, or unlucky because I beat the odds?

Would my life insurance company pay off? Arguably it would not be an act of God, or an act of war, so I think the insurance company should pay. But I really don’t know if they would; admittedly, I don’t have a falling space debris clause in my policy. (As the space around our planet becomes increasingly crowded, perhaps space debris insurance would be a good investment.)

Now if the odds were 1 in 3200 for each of us, can you imagine the chaos? That would be a mass casualty event in the making. Those odds would be much higher than the odds of being killed by almost anything else I can think of.

From Dr. Strangelove. Click to activate the video.

I suspect there would be anti-NASA marches on the capitols of all the nations affected, which would be most of the world’s nations, by people demanding we nuke the satellite before it poses a hazard. Or maybe they’d demand we send space cowboys up to guide the careening space bus to a safer impact. (I’m not sure how those heroic bronco busters would get back; maybe they’d ride it down a la Dr. Strangelove.)

Fortunately, the odds are mighty small (1 in 21 trillion) that you or I would be hit by this particular satellite. There are much greater chances of winning a state lottery.

But assuming a piece did actually hit me without putting a hole through my head or chest, maybe simply winging me, could I profit from it? Would I become an instant celebrity? Would there be book deals? Can you imagine the television talk show questions, like “How did you feel about your impending death when you saw the fire ball heading your way?”

Let’s face it, with burning metal hurtling to Earth at 18,000 miles per hour I likely wouldn’t see it in time to react, and if I did see it, I undoubtedly wouldn’t have time to mentally compute its trajectory. Should I stand still or run? In fact, I think that calculation would be impossible. An incoming missile simply gets larger and larger in your field of view, giving you perhaps just enough time to say “Oh…” but not enough time to finish the four letter expletive you had intended.

But frankly, I’m not at all concerned. If it happens at all, it wouldn’t happen to me. It always happens to the other guy. Which I’m sure is what the insurance companies are hoping – it will be the other guy, and the other guy will be uninsured.

If pressed, I suppose I could see the insurance company’s point; If I did get squashed by supersonic satellite debris it probably would be an act of God.

Now, I’m trying to think, have I done anything to tick Him off lately?






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