As the title suggests, I am wondering the maximum size an object can be so that it will completely burn up when entering and falling through Earth's atmosphere. I'm focusing on man made objects, not asteroids or meteors. Also, how much does the make-up of the object affect its burn rate? I.e. metal vs plastic vs glass, and so on. Thanks!
The Earth atmosphere protects us from small impacts from both asteroids and man made objects. This is well known from meteoroids, where meteoroids as large as a few tens of meters in diameter usually fail to penetrate into the lower atmosphere because they get fragmented and dispersed at high altitude. Fragmentation height depends mainly on the meteoroid strength, only strongest irons reach the surface in one piece.
We could extrapolate from meteoroids to man made objects that even large do not have the same physical strength than a massive meteoroid body. This means than nearly all man machine objects will disintegrate before reaching earth. Heavy metallic ones (iron) will disintegrate at lower altitudes than lighter ones such glass and plastic.
- This is not true for objects not having reached orbit, e.g. rocket 1st or 2nd stage engines will fall without disintegrating.
- Even if they disintegrate, nuclear powered satellites will cause some level of radioactive pollution, however widely scattered in the atmosphere.
Although the risk to human beings walking on earth is next to nil, there is a real risk of impact from man made objects littering Earth orbits to other spatial vehicles.
Reference: "The Impact Hazard", David Morrison, Clark R. Chapman and Paul Slovic, in "Hazards due to Comets and Asteroids", T. Gehrels, Ed., 1994, The University of Arizona Press