The Australian Space Agency is investigating space debris found in farmland in the Snowy Mountains, Australia. Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, believes it is the remains of a SpaceX mission.
Brad Tucker often receives calls from people who believe they have found space junk. Usually it’s something else. “This time it was different,” he told the Guardian.
A few days ago, the researcher received a call from Mick Miners and Jock Wallace, two sheep farmers from the small town of Dalgety, in southern New South Wales (Australia), reporting that they had found several burnt objects. Tucker drove for two hours to the farm to view the damage, suspecting it might be the remains of a SpaceX Crew Dragon ship.
The trunk of the capsule
The Crew Dragon vessel, 8.23 m high, indeed comprises two sub-assemblies. The top of the vessel consists of a cone-shaped capsule composed of three sub-segments. Its base is formed by a thermal shield which protects the vessel during atmospheric re-entry. The pressurized part is intended for the crew and contains the attitude control and guidance engines. Finally, the top of the capsule includes a small removable cover that protects the docking airlock to the ISS during the spacecraft’s orbit and its return to Earth.
The lower part of the vessel, called “the trunk”, is cylindrical in shape. 3.66 m high for a diameter of 3.66 m, this part of the vessel is necessary for take-off, but discarded before re-entry. Half of its surface is covered with photovoltaic cells allowing the power supply of the vessel while the other half is covered with radiators intended for thermal regulation.
One of these structures had been observed above the Australian region of New South Wales on July 9, just a few days before the report from these two farmers. This “trunk” included a capsule launched in November 2020.
SpaceX has not confirmed
On site, Tucker found that it was most likely space debris, the latter being made of composite materials designed to resist heat. The room also showed clear signs of burning due to atmospheric re-entry. Dr Sara Webb, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University, agrees with Tucker’s assessment that this debris is compatible with a SpaceX mission.
One of the panels of this debris also appeared to have a serial number. SpaceX has not yet confirmed that this debris belongs to one of its ships, however. For its part, the Australian Space Agency (ASA) is actively working to support the formal identification of these objects.
Typically, space junk is destined to fall back into the ocean, but some occasionally hit the ground. In 1979, part of the American space station Skylab notably crashed above Western Australia. A few years later, a Russian nuclear satellite landed in Canada. More recently, debris from a Chinese Long March 5B rocket also fell to the ground in West Africa and Southeast Asia.