The Australian Space Agency is investigating space debris found in farmland in the Snowy Mountains in southern NSW, after being alerted by an astrophysicist who believes it is from a SpaceX mission.
Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, says he often gets calls from people who think they’ve found space junk – and they’re usually easy to rule out.
“This was different,” he said.
Tucker received a call last Thursday from Mick Miners and Jock Wallace, two sheep farmers in the small town of Dalgety, who reported finding a burnt object. Their report was consistent with a SpaceX spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at 7 a.m. on July 9, 20 months after its November 2020 launch.
The farmers were connected to Tucker via ABC local radio, where he is a regular guest to talk about space.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule was observed breaking apart over the area in Australia where farmers found debris. Its re-entry was seen and heard by people from Canberra to Bendigo, with many sharing it on social media.
Tucker drove two hours to the Miners’ farm to see if the object they had found was the depressurized trunk of the capsule — a structure needed for take-off but dumped before re-entry.
His first impression, he said, was something that “kind of just looks like a burnt tree … and then you get up to it, it’s almost like this otherworldly obelisk”.
“I knew without a doubt that this was a very real event and a very real piece that just popped out of the ground.”
Tucker said he could tell it was real because it was made of composite materials designed to withstand heat, including woven carbon fiber for insulation. It also showed clear signs of burning due to re-entry.
One of the panels of the debris appeared to have a part number. “It’s a very easy way for SpaceX to verify it because there’s a label on it,” he says.
He documented the find on YouTube.
SpaceX has yet to confirm to Tucker that the debris belonged to the SpaceX Dragon, and has yet to respond to an inquiry from Guardian Australia.
The waste has been assessed by the Australian Space Agency (ASA).
An ASA spokesperson told Guardian Australia that its technical experts had “visited a remote part of the Snowy Mountains area in southern New South Wales, following the discovery of space debris”.
“The agency is actively working to support formal identification of the items and is liaising with our counterparts in the US, as well as other parts of the Commonwealth and local authorities where appropriate,” the spokesperson said.
Tucker says space junk is meant to land in the ocean, and it’s a “super rare” occurrence for it to land in a populated area.
“It’s only happened a handful of times,” he says. “In 1979, the American space station Skylab crashed over Western Australia in the first instance. It was a Russian nuclear power satellite that crashed in Canada in the 80s. And then China had a rocket booster that crashed and landed in West Africa a couple of years ago. SpaceX had part of a booster crash in the US state of Washington last year. And now this.”
It’s a short list, but the incidents are becoming more frequent.
Dr Sara Webb, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University, agreed with Tucker’s assessment that the debris was consistent with a SpaceX mission.
Webb said this incident and the Chinese booster rocket, which came back to Earth uncontrolled on Saturday, underscored the importance of tracking space debris.
The Chinese booster rocket was particularly large, she said.
“Even if 80% of it burned up, you’re still left with a car coming out of the atmosphere,” she said.
The ASA spokesman said the organization is “committed to the long-term sustainability of activities in outer space, including waste mitigation”.
“This includes the ongoing development of a space situational awareness and debris mitigation roadmap, to guide opportunities in this important area,” the ASA said.