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Metals from spacecraft reentry in stratospheric aerosol particles

Murphy, D., M. Abou-­Ghanema, D. Cziczo, K. Froyd, J. Jacquot, M. Lawler, C. Maloney, J. M. C. Plane, M. Ross, G. Schill, and X. Shen (2023), Metals from spacecraft reentry in stratospheric aerosol particles, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., doi:10.1073/pnas.2313374120.

Large increases in the number of low earth orbit satellites are projected in the coming decades [L. Schulz, K.-­H. Glassmeier, Adv. Space Res. 67, 1002–1025 (2021)] with perhaps 50,000 additional satellites in orbit by 2030 [GAO, Large constellations of satellites: Mitigating environmental and other effects (2022)]. When spent rocket bodies and defunct satellites reenter the atmosphere, they produce metal vapors that condense into aerosol particles that descend into the stratosphere. So far, models of spacecraft reentry have focused on understanding the hazard presented by objects that survive to the surface rather than on the fate of the metals that vaporize. Here, we show that metals that vaporized during spacecraft reentries can be clearly measured in stratospheric sulfuric acid particles. Over 20 elements from reentry were detected and were present in ratios consistent with alloys used in spacecraft. The mass of lithium, aluminum, copper, and lead from the reentry of spacecraft was found to exceed the cosmic dust influx of those metals. About 10% of stratospheric sulfuric acid particles larger than 120 nm in diameter contain aluminum and other elements from spacecraft reentry. Planned increases in the number of low earth orbit satellites within the next few decades could cause up to half of stratospheric sulfuric acid particles to contain metals from reentry. The influence of this level of metallic content on the properties of stratospheric aerosol is unknown. stratosphere | aerosol | spacecraft | reentry | meteors Aerosol particles that are formed in the stratosphere are composed primarily of sulfuric acid derived from the oxidation of carbonyl sulfide and, after volcanic eruptions, sulfur

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Research Program: 
Atmospheric Composition
Tropospheric Composition Program (TCP)
Upper Atmosphere Research Program (UARP)
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