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Photograph of a satellite orbiting the Earth

Falling satellites

In October 2011, the newsrooms were full of reports that an old NASA satellite was due to fall back into Earth’s atmosphere and that a small piece, the size of a washing machine or a small van, would likely make it through re-entry and come crashing back down onto Earth’s surface somewhere. News studios entertained experts and discussed how big a splash or how big a dent the piece of space junk would make, depending on where it landed, and discussed the risk it posed to life on Earth.

They talked about how fast it would be travelling, what noise it would make and whether we would see it in time to get out of its way if we happened to be the unfortunate individual under its path.

One in 100 billion.

According to the European Space Agency, that’s the approximate annual odds of being severely injured by falling satellites. (It’s probably similar to the annual odds of being killed by falling satellites.) Incredibly small. So small, in fact, that we shouldn’t have any column inches or airtime dedicated to a discussion about how we could save ourselves if we happened to be in its path.

It’s another example of the availability bias. We believed it was more likely to happen to us because it was more prominent in our minds. This is due to the novelty of the example and that it’s about space and NASA.

Satellites falling “out of control” to “smash” into Earth is also vividly and emotionally distinctive. Spending time listening to experts even talking about the possibility of being struck by one would make it feel more likely.

Note: We didn’t get to find out where the satellite landed. Both it, and all the media stories surrounding it, vanished a day or so later.

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