Pilots on a commercial flight from Chile saw flaming objects falling past their plane as it headed into New Zealand earlier this week. Australian media got a bit excited about this and postulated that the objects were part of a Russian spacecraft. Others suggested that they were meteoroids.
ABC Radio in NSW called me for comment (which was nice - they wanted me as a space debris expert, not an archaeologist!). Their spin was: should people be concerned? Is it becoming unsafe to be an aeroplane passenger?
I argued not - that the likelihood of actually being hit by space junk re-entering the atmosphere was negligible. Not, however, zero: people and property have been struck before. But mostly debris burns up on re-entry, and the space tracking boffins know when something big is on the way.
In the back of my head were a few alarm bells. I'd hate to cause a panic among frequent flyers by ill-chosen words! And once again I was tired as, having thrown all my energy into meeting a deadline just half an hour before the interview (and then being enticed into the bar by a few students - it was my choice to have a drink though!). My brain was practically in orbit itself.
I did use the opportunity to make a valuable point though. Instead of worrying that space junk would hit their plane, people should be worried about space junk compromising satellite services - television, telephone, GPS and navigation, weather forecasting, and - ATMs. That's right, ATMs rely on satellite data to function. I'm only aware of this because I hang out with space people, and it should be more widely known. Can you imagine what would happen if we lost access to satellites?
As an aside, I just want to say how much I loathe the word "airplane". There is no beauty in it.