Mick Miners was herding sheep on a four-wheeler last week when he came across a sharp black object that appeared to be over 9ft tall. It reminded him of either a burnt tree or a piece of farm machinery.
“Pretty scary, actually,” Miners, 48, said by phone Thursday from his roughly 5,000-acre property in a remote corner of southeast Australia.
“I was quite surprised,” he added. “It’s not something you see every day on a sheep farm.”
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The miners took a photo and sent it to a nearby farmer, Jock Wallace, who had discovered an equally mysterious object on his farm days earlier.
It was space junk.
US space agency NASA said in a statement that SpaceX had confirmed the object was likely the remaining part of the jettisoned trunk segment of a Dragon spacecraft used during the return of the Crew-1 mission from the International Space Station in May last year. “If you believe you have identified debris, please do not attempt to handle or recover the debris,” NASA said.
Space debris refers to equipment in space that no longer functions. Most space junk burns up as it re-enters the atmosphere, and much of what remains often falls into the ocean. However, with more spacecraft entering orbit – such as those from private companies like SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk – impacts to earth may occur more frequently. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said it’s not unusual for space debris to be found on earth after an uncontrolled re-entry.
“It was a little surprising to me that so much of the trunk survived the re-entry heating process,” McDowell said, but added that there was no indication there was anything particularly risky in the trunk. He said that in the new commercial era of space exploration, it was much more difficult to obtain technical information from private companies to assess risks. With more information, “we might get a better assessment of, ‘Have we just been really unlucky, or should we expect this from all trunk re-entries if they happen on land?'”
The trunk segment, which is used to transport cargo and also includes the spacecraft’s solar panels and heaters, is jettisoned from the capsule’s body shortly after the end of burnup as it exits orbit. “It generally burns up in the atmosphere over the ocean, posing minimal risk to public safety,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
Last week, after debris from a large Chinese rocket reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a reprimand, saying China ” did not share specific trajectory information as its Long March 5B rocket fell back to Earth.” .” He added that all countries should “share this type of information in advance to allow reliable predictions of the potential risk of debris impact, especially for heavy vehicles, such as the Long March 5B, which carry a risk significant loss of life and property”.
The possibility that debris from the rocket could have hit a populated area has led people around the world to follow its trajectory for days. It was the third flight of Long March 5B, China’s largest rocket, which was making what is called an “uncontrolled re-entry” to Earth.
Last year, a malfunction caused a SpaceX rocket stage to re-enter uncontrollably into Earth’s atmosphere near Seattle in what looked like glowing objects lighting up the night sky. Pieces of burning rocket debris landed on a farmer’s property in Washington state. The debris had re-entered the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit.
The rural area of Australia where miners discovered the space junk on July 25 is about 100 miles south of the capital, Canberra.
Ron Lane, who owns a restaurant in the town of Dalgety, said most locals – with the notable exception of himself – weren’t particularly worried about additional space junk likely to land on them. or on their homes.
“If there are three that we know about, there could be 10 more that we don’t know about,” Lane said by phone from his restaurant, Tuscany In Dalgety.
Miners, who was born on the farm where he discovered the unidentified debris, said his neighbor, Wallace, called authorities to report the other debris he found on his own property earlier in July. Public interest grew, Miners said, after Wallace called Australia’s national broadcaster, which then reported on the farmers’ findings and said three pieces of debris had been found.
“Then everyone found out and I got around 300 calls,” said Miners, who has around 5,500 sheep, 100 cattle and 30 horses on his farm in Numbla Vale district.
His own piece of debris is nearly 10ft tall by 1.3ft, he said, and an Australian Space Agency official called Thursday to say his experts were planning to visit his property next week. to “take a look”.
The miners said he had so far enjoyed learning the preliminary details of how the debris landed and was unsure what would happen next.
He said he would be “happy to keep it” but was also interested in “a bit of compensation”, if space agencies or society wanted it back.
Sa’id Mosteshar, professor of international space law and director of the Institute for Space Policy and Law in London, said a person could only seek compensation if the debris caused them harm or cause damage to it. property.
“I guess they’ll want it back,” added Miners. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m a sheep farmer.
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