Space junk from an old SpaceX mission may have landed in rural Australia.
A piece of charred material believed to have been left behind by the re-entry of a SpaceX spacecraft was found in the middle of a sheep pen near Dalgety; The discovery follows a “bang” heard by witnesses on July 9 local time in the southeast of the country.
SpaceX has yet to confirm if the piece was part of its Crew-1 Dragon spacecraft which successfully crashed on May 2, 2021. That said, longtime space debris tracker Jonathan McDowell said on Twitter (opens in a new tab) Friday (July 29) that Dalgety was actually under the projected re-entry lane of a piece of unpressurized “trunk” of Dragon, jettisoned prior to re-entry.
McDowell added that photos suggest the debris came from one of the trunk fins. These fins sit on the circumference of the rocket to help with aerodynamics during the launch phase of the mission.
Related: SpaceX’s Crew-1 astronaut mission to the International Space Station in photos
Sheep farmer Mick Miners found the nearly 9-foot-tall object in a remote part of his paddock on Monday, July 25, and didn’t know what it was, according to ABC News. (opens in a new tab). After a call to neighboring farmer Jock Wallace, he discovered that Wallace had spotted more debris on his property the previous week, July 21.
Wallace called the local civil aviation authority for advice, who advised him to contact NASA for more information. “I am a farmer from Dalgety. What am I going to tell NASA? Wallace told ABC.
The debris is most likely the unpressurized “trunk” of the spacecraft, astrophysicist Brad Tucker told Space.com. “After going there and looking at the pieces myself, there is no doubt in my mind that it is space junk,” he said in an email.
The trunk is designed to send unpressurized cargo into space, and also to support the Crew Dragon during launch, according to SpaceX (opens in a new tab). Half of the trunk includes solar panels that power Dragon when the ship is in flight or docked at the station. The trunk detaches from the spacecraft shortly before reentry.
The sonic boom, Tucker said, was widely heard at 7:05 a.m. local time on July 9, and the pieces found near Dalgety were “very close to the plotted trajectory of the SpaceX-1 Crew vault.”
The farms where the pieces were found span hundreds of acres, which is why the finds took several weeks, Tucker added. “From a distance also it looks like an old burnt tree stump. It wasn’t until you got closer that you realized there was something wrong. The two farmers thought it was been there for a few weeks based on the last time they were near.”
Tucker found at least one part number on one of the pieces and asked SpaceX to confirm if it matches the trunk. “Having looked at it myself,” he added, “the way it’s made and the material is clearly of advanced workmanship. It wasn’t done in someone’s shed .You can see clear burn marks on re-entry.”
If confirmed as a piece of Dragon, Tucker told ABC it would be the largest documented piece of space debris in Australia since Skylab broke up on the mainland during an uncontrolled re-entry above the Earth. Western Australia in 1979.
The NASA space station had been unmanned for several years before solar activity unexpectedly increased Earth’s atmosphere, increasing the drag on Skylab. The agency did its best to direct the station to unpopulated areas. Known debris from the incident includes an oxygen tank, a hatch and even a storage freezer.
Related: Skylab remains: debris from the NASA space station in Australia (photos)
The potential SpaceX debris is on a relatively small scale compared to China’s nearly 100-foot (30-meter) Long March 5B core stage that is expected to return to Earth this weekend. In any case, the chances of space junk posing a problem for Earthlings are infinitesimally small.
The United States and most international space agencies have practices governing how they deal with space debris, with Americans following government-created Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices. (opens in a new tab).
If the Dalgety debris is confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first time a large piece of SpaceX hardware has fallen to Earth. Debris from a SpaceX launch in April 2021 appeared at a farm in central Washington, which at the time was tied to the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket. Debris from 2021 was confirmed to be generated by SpaceX by the Grant County Sheriff’s Office; SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.