Australia may have been hit by space junk from an old SpaceX mission.
A chunk of charred material from a SpaceX spacecraft reentry was found in a sheep paddock near Dalgety after witnesses heard a bang on July 9 local time.
Whether the piece came from the Crew-1 Dragon that splashed down successfully on May 2, 2021, SpaceX has not confirmed. According to long-time space debris tracker Jonathan McDowell on Twitter (opens in new tab) Friday (July 29), Dalgety was in fact under an unpressurized "trunk" piece of Dragon jettisoned before re-entry.
It appears from the photos that the debris came from a trunk fin, McDowell said. As the rocket launches, these fins assist with aerodynamics during the launch phase.
Sheep farmer Mick Miners found the nearly 3-metre high object in a distant part of his paddock on July 25th and didn't know what it was, according to ABC News. After a call to neighbouring farmer Jock Wallace, he discovered Wallace spotted more debris on his property the previous week, on July 21st.
Wallace called the local civil aviation authority for advice, who advised him to reach out to NASA for more information. "I'm a farmer from Dalgety. What am I going to say to NASA?" Wallace told ABC.
According to astrophysicist Brad Tucker, the debris is likely the unpressurized "trunk" of the spacecraft. "Having looked at the bits myself, there is no doubt in my mind that it is space junk," he wrote.
According to SpaceX, the trunk is designed to launch unpressurized cargo into space as well as support the Crew Dragon during its launch. During flight or docking at the station, half of the trunk is covered with solar panels that power Dragon. As soon as the spacecraft re-enters, the trunk detaches.
Tucker said the sonic boom was heard widely at 7:05 a.m. on July 9, and the pieces found near Dalgety were "very near" the SpaceX-1 Crew trunk's tracked path.
Tucker explained that the discovery of the pieces took several weeks because the farms cover hundreds of acres. "From a distance as well, it just looks like an old burnt tree stump. It wasn't until you got closer you realize there is something off about it. Both farmers thought it had been there a few weeks based on the last time they would have gone nearby."
Tucker has asked SpaceX to confirm whether a part number found on one of the pieces matches the trunk. "Having looked at it myself," he added, "the way it is manufactured and the material is clearly of advanced manufacturing. This wasn’t done in someone’s shed. You can see clear scorching marks from re-entry."
According to Tucker, if confirmed, this would be the largest piece of space debris discovered in Australia since Skylab broke up over the continent in 1979. After several years unmanned, increased solar activity unexpectedly ballooned Earth's atmosphere, increasing drag on Skylab. The agency did its best to steer the station to unpopulated areas. Known debris from the incident includes an oxygen tank, a hatch, and even a storage freezer.
The potential SpaceX debris is at a relatively small scale compared with the nearly 30-metre Chinese Long March 5B core stage. In any case, the odds of any space debris posing an issue to Earthlings is infinitesimally small.
International space agencies and the United States have practices to deal with space debris, with the Americans following their own Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.
Dalgety debris isn't the first time a large piece of SpaceX hardware has fallen to Earth. The second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket was associated with debris from a SpaceX launch in April 2021 that appeared on a farm in central Washington. The Grant County Sheriff's Office confirmed the debris was generated by SpaceX; SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.
QUESTION: What ramifications should there be for random shrapnel caused by launches?
Let us know in the comments and keep thrusting Australia into the deep unknown…