Lost in space

10.03.14: THE AMERICAN space agency is reeling from the first-ever deaths in space. All occupants of international space station Alpha are feared dead after the crew module was hit by a tiny piece of space debris travelling at orbital speed of 29,000km/hour.

Nobody yet knows whether the crew suffocated, froze to death or exploded during the catastrophic depressurisation of the module. A shuttle mission to recover the bodies, which include a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl who had won a visit to the space station in a UN-sponsored competition, is being readied for launch on Tuesday. The tragedy highlights the growing problem of space debris, which this year has been blamed for the destruction of an Indian communications satellite and a Malaysian weather satellite.

According to Dan Fillipenko of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, the earth is currently girdled by several million pieces of debris larger than 1cm across ­ from discarded rocket casings, broken satellites and a host of other man-made detritus.

High-speed collisions between the pieces continually break them up into even smaller pieces, creating a "ring of death" around the earth. All 163,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm in diameter are tracked continuously by ground-based radar systems.

This particular piece of debris is believed to have come from the 100-metre sculpture of a string of human DNA, which was constructed by the artist Alfie Hoyle from self-assembling memory materials. Hoyle claims the sculpture reflects his great-grandfather Sir Fred's belief that we are ourselves quite literally made up of stardust. MC