Scientists estimated that there would be less than one in 1 trillion chance of a person getting hit with any space debris. Getting hit by lightning would be far more possible, but did you know that an American became the first and only person getting struck by space junk?
In 1997, Tulsa local Lottie Williams was exercising in a public park when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She soon realized a 6-inch piece of metal harmlessly struck her. They soon found out it was space debris.
The Midcourse Space Experiment
The Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) was a program that launched a satellite back in 1994. The satellite has several optical surveillance sensors designed to observe targets launched separately in dedicated and cooperative target programs. (Source: SPIE Digital Library)
The primary objective of the MSX was to detect, acquire and track targets in outer space. Through detailed characterization and modeling of the objects’ phenomenology, it will discern whether it is a lethal or nonlethal object. The information gathered by the satellite will help scientists fill in the spatial, spectral, and temporal gaps in existing space environment models.
After more than 12 years of service, almost three times its intended lifespan, the MSX satellite was retired in July 2008. Its years of service were successful, having contributed to two diverse defense missions as it collected vital data for designing missile defense systems. Since the satellite did not have any fuel, it was expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere within a few centuries. There is no way for scientists to maneuver the satellite back home. (Source: eoPortal Directory)
Lottie Williams’ One in a Trillion Encounter
In the early morning of 1997, 48-year-old Tulsan resident Lottie Williams was doing her morning exercises in a local park with her friends. She was out walking with her friends at around 3:30 am, which was part of Williams’ daily routine.
Williams and her friends suddenly noticed a big, bright light in the sky. It looked like fire, as she recalled. She turned to her friends to show them the ball of fire in the sky, and when she looked back, she noticed immediately that it was coming towards them. The fireball flew over them, shot off two sparks, and then disappeared over a building.
Williams thought she saw a falling star and that the two sparks were new stars born out of the falling star. They thought nothing of it and continued walking. On her third mile, Williams felt a tap on her left shoulder. Something hit her then fell to the ground. It produced a metallic clunk as it fell.
The Tulsan lady kicked it to the light for further inspection, picking it up and bringing it to her truck. The object was blackened on the edges, looking like it burned. It was around the length of her palm and was very light. It consisted of layers of very light metallic material and was very thin.
The impact, fortunately, didn’t hurt her. Later in the day, she tried reaching out to multiple government agencies to learn more about it. She soon found out through the US Space Command in Colorado Springs that a Delta II rocket body had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere around 3:30 am that day, the same time they saw the fireball. The command also confirmed that the reentry was observed over the south-central part of the country, with sightings reported from Texas, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. The rocket was part of a military satellite launch in April 1996, nine months earlier.
NASA examined the metallic piece that struck Williams and showed that it was consistent with Delta II’s material. Chief scientist for Orbital debris for NASA, Nicholas Johnson, believes that a piece of Delta II indeed struck Williams. (Source: ABC News)