The Australian Space Agency has confirmed that space debris found in the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales belongs to a craft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
Technical experts from the agency visited the remote site on Saturday where sheep farmers Mick Miners and Jock Wallace each discovered a piece of space debris on their respective farms.
The agency had been alerted by Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist from the Australian National University, who first realized that the timing and location of the debris coincided with a SpaceX spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at 7 a.m. on July 9, 20 months after launching in November 2020.
Tucker believes the debris came from the depressurized trunk of the SpaceX capsule, which is critical to take off but dumped when it returns to Earth.
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An Australian Space Agency (ASA) spokesperson said, “the agency has confirmed that the debris is from a SpaceX mission and continues to engage with our colleagues in the United States, as well as other parts of the Commonwealth and local authorities as appropriate”.
“If the community discovers additional suspect 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 at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Tucker said since the discovery of the first two pieces of debris was announced, a third piece had been found further west, closer to Jindabyne.
He expects more people to come forward with debris “over the coming weeks to months to even years” now that people know the dissolution occurred in the area.
The ASA spokesman said it “operates under the Australian Government’s Space Debris Reentry Plan, which outlines the roles and responsibilities of key Australian government agencies and committees to support the response to space debris reentry.”
Tucker says there are now discussions about whether SpaceX will collect the trash.
He said that the collection is important because it can be related to any liability and damages, which is not the decision of SpaceX, but made at the government level.
Tucker said the likely scenario, in his view, is that given there was no damage, it would not need to involve intergovernmental payments, unlike when a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite crashed in Canada in the 1980s.
Because it was 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 eventually received about half.
Tucker also explained why space debris did not create a massive crater when it hit the ground.
When the capsule hit the Earth’s atmosphere, it lost most of its speed because all the energy was absorbed in the atmosphere, causing it to break apart.
“Like if you throw a ball through a window, the shards of glass don’t necessarily move with the speed of the ball. They travel more slowly because of the transfer of energy.”
Dr Sara Webb, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University, explains that it is also possible that debris could have bounced around and bounced further away from where it had first 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 all over Eastern Siberia heard this massive bang…it flattened thousands and thousands of trees around the area from the shock wave explosion, but they have never been able to locate the actual impact crater.”
Tucker said the debris also does not emerge hot because it has spent most of orbiting space where it is very cold, and it is relatively only a very short time when it heats up and passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
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“It’s kind of like if you take a frozen pizza out, microwave it for three seconds and put it back in the freezer, it’s actually going to land cold.”
Webb said that any space debris that does not burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere should splash down at a point called “Point Nemo” in the Pacific Ocean – the farthest point from any land mass.
The ASA spokesman said: “The agency is committed to the long-term sustainability of activities in outer space, including debris mitigation, and has highlighted this on the international stage.”
SpaceX has been contacted for comment.