The Australian Space Agency has confirmed that space debris found in the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales belongs to a spacecraft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
The agency’s technical experts visited the remote site on Saturday, where sheep farmers Mick Miners and Jock Wallace discovered a piece of space debris on their respective farms.
The agency had been alerted by Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, who first realized that the timing and location of the wreckage coincided with a SpaceX spacecraft that re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 7 am on July 9, 20 months ago. after its fall. release in November 2020.
Tucker believes the wreckage came from the unpressurized trunk of the SpaceX capsule, which is critical for liftoff, but dumped upon returning to Earth.
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A spokesperson for the Australian Space Agency (ASA) said: “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.” .
“If the community detects more suspicious debris, they should not attempt to handle or retrieve it,” the spokesperson said.
“They should contact the SpaceX Debris hotline at 1-866-623-0234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Tucker said that since the discovery of the first two pieces of wreckage was announced, a third piece has been found further west, closer to Jindabyne.
He expects more people to show debris “in the coming weeks, months or even years” now that people know that disintegration has taken place in the area.
The ASA spokesperson said it is “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 Re-entry Debris response.”
Tucker says there are now discussions about whether SpaceX will collect the debris.
He said the collection is important because it could be related to any liability and damages, which is not a decision by SpaceX, but made at the government level.
Tucker said the likely scenario, in his view, is that given there was no damage, it won’t have to involve intergovernmental payments, unlike when a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite crashed in Canada in the 1980s.
Because it is nuclear powered, it cost Canada millions of dollars to clean up, Tucker said. Canada demanded C$6 million in compensation from the USSR, of which they ended up receiving about half.
Tucker also explained why space debris didn’t create a huge crater when it hit the ground.
When the capsule hit Earth’s atmosphere, it lost most of its speed because all the energy was absorbed into the atmosphere, causing it to break apart.
“As if you threw a ball through a window, the shards of glass do not necessarily travel at the speed of the ball. They travel slower because of energy transfer.”
Sara Webb, an astrophysicist at the University of Swinburne, explains that it’s also possible that the wreckage could have bounced and bounced further away from where it initially landed.
Webb says that one of the best examples of this effect is the Tunguska event of 1908: “this was an insanely massive meteorite that came over the Siberian forest. People across eastern Siberia heard this massive boom… it toppled thousands and thousands of trees around the area of the shock wave blast, but the actual impact crater they were never able to fully locate.”
Tucker said the debris also doesn’t emerge hot because it spent most of its orbital space where it’s very cold and it’s comparatively only a very short period of time when it warms up passing through Earth’s atmosphere.
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“It’s like if you take a frozen pizza, put it in the microwave for three seconds and then put it back in the freezer, in fact it will land cold.”
Webb said any space debris that doesn’t burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere should land at a point called “Point Nemo” in the Pacific Ocean – the farthest point of any land mass.
The ASA spokesperson said: “The Agency is committed to the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, including debris mitigation, and has highlighted this on the international stage.”
SpaceX was contacted for comment.