The discovery of an “alien obelisk” in the middle of rural Australia last week has once again raised concerns about the danger of space debris falling from orbit to Earth.
The Australian Space Agency (ASA) confirmed on Wednesday that charred debris found in a sheep pasture near Dalgety, New South Wales, came from a SpaceX Dragon capsule that re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on July 9.
The agency was notified by astrophysicist Brad Tucker of the Australian National University after Tucker received a call from two farmers last Thursday saying they believed they had found space junk.
Tucker drove two hours to Mick Miners and Jock Wallace’s farm in Dalgety to analyze the burned object and concluded that it likely came from a SpaceX spacecraft that re-entered the atmosphere last month.
The capsule had been launched approximately 20 months earlier, in November 2020.
Numerous reports of the SpaceX Dragon capsule breaking apart were shared on social media as its re-entry “was seen and heard by people from Canberra to Bendigo”.
“People throughout the area heard a sonic boom as the SpaceX Crew-1 Trunk, which is the unpressurized underside of the capsule – a structure necessary for liftoff but dumped before re-entry – entered the atmosphere,” Tucker said. told Euronews Next.
“People also saw the bright light and pieces breaking off, which is characteristic of space junk,” he added.
‘Like an alien obelisk’
Inside a video shared on Youtube, Tucker documented the discovery, saying “you can see it coming out of the ground”.
At first, sheep farmers thought the 10-foot-tall wreckage was an “old burnt tree”, but on closer inspection, Tucker noticed “transparent panels designed for insulation and heat resistance”.
The debris — made of composite materials designed to withstand heat, including woven carbon fire — also showed clear signs of burn from re-entry.
The pieces can also be visually matched to images and trunk parts, according to Tucker.
“When you get to it, it’s almost like an alien obelisk, but we think this is a part of the trunk fin that has now sunk into the ground,” he added. “We think it weighs around 20-30 kg – we obviously didn’t dig it up out of the ground.”
“It will be very easy for SpaceX to confirm whether the wreckage belonged to the Dragon capsule or not, because there is a serial number on one of the panels found on Jock Wallace’s farm,” Tucker said.
SpaceX responsible for the wreckage
ASA experts visited the area on Saturday to make sure the material they found did not pose a danger to anyone and came to the conclusion on Wednesday that the wreckage belonged to a vessel built by Elon Musk’s company.
“The agency has confirmed that the wreckage is from a SpaceX mission and continues to engage with our colleagues in the US, as well as other parts of the community and local authorities as appropriate,” the ASA said in a statement.
It is not yet clear whether SpaceX will collect the debris or not, but the collection of the debris is important for the Australian government to declare any liability and damages.
“The agency is now operating under the Australian Government’s Space Re-entry Debris Plan, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of key Australian government agencies and committees in supporting the space reentry debris response,” the statement continued.
A spokesperson said the ASA is committed to the “long-term sustainability of outer space activities, including the mitigation of debris” and the agency has already highlighted this on the international stage.
Since the announcement, a third piece of space junk has also been found further west of the Moonbah wreck site.
The threat of space debris falling from the sky
“This is a super rare event as space junk is usually destined to land in the ocean,” Tucker said.
“These are the biggest pieces of space junk in Australia since 1979, after the US space station Skylab crashed over Western Australia.”
Space debris falling from the sky “happened only a few times”, but it’s becoming more and more frequent over the years.
“There was a Russian nuclear-powered satellite that crashed in Canada in the 1980s. And then China had a rocket that crashed and landed in West Africa a few years ago. SpaceX was part of a rocket accident in the US state of Washington in the year past. And now this,” Tucker told Euronews Next.
A large Chinese booster rocket also made an uncontrolled return to Earth on Saturday, although there was no reported damage in the western region of the Philippines where the wreckage fell, according to Philippine officials.
China was heavily criticized by the Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA), which said it had not received any notification from its Chinese counterpart about the rocket’s wreckage.
‘Uncontrolled re-entries are difficult to predict with today’s knowledge’
“Unfortunately, no reasonable estimate of the re-entry location can be provided prior to reentry with today’s knowledge,” Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Security Program, told Euronews Next.
“Uncontrolled re-entries are difficult to predict as the re-entry time is determined by atmospheric density, which depends on several poorly determined factors. As space objects are moving very fast (approximately 27,000 km/h before re-entry), the best achievable accuracy is only approximately five hours, a day before re-entry,” he added.
ESA predicts that the amount of orbital mass re-entering the atmosphere in a year should reach around 250 tonnes.
“About 20 to 40% of this mass is expected to survive aerodynamic and aerothermal stress during reentry and impact ground,” explained Krag.
Using data from the 18th Space Control Squadron and European facilities under contract, the ESA said it is focusing efforts on improving forecasts for “this kind of uncontrolled re-entry”.
“We are also preparing technology that will bring disposable components that we can use in space systems to limit the risk on the ground,” Krag said.
“Heavy space systems would not be allowed to undergo uncontrolled reentry, but must be designed in such a way that we can deorbit them in a controlled manner over unpopulated ocean areas,” he added.
“Such technology, when available, should be used systematically to avoid hazards on land.”