Last week, Mick Meiners was tending sheep in a four-wheeled vehicle when he came across a pointed black object over nine feet high. It reminded him of a burnt tree, or agricultural machinery.
“It’s actually quite intimidating,” Meiners, 48, said by phone Thursday from his nearly 5,000-acre property in a remote corner of southeastern Australia.
“I was quite surprised,” he added. “It’s not something you see every day on a sheep farm.”
Mr Meiners took the picture and sent it to nearby farmer Jock Wallace, who had accidentally discovered the same mysterious object on his farm a few days earlier.
It was space junk.
US space agency NASA said in a statement that SpaceX had confirmed that the object was likely the remains of a dropped Dragon spacecraft barrel segment used during the return of the Crew-1 mission from the International Space Station last May. “If you believe you have identified debris, please do not attempt to handle or retrieve it,” NASA said.
Space debris refers to equipment in space that is no longer operational. Most space debris burns up on re-entry into the atmosphere, and most of what’s left often falls into the ocean. However, as more spacecraft enter orbit, such as those from private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ground impacts may become more frequent. 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 uncommon for space debris to be found on earth after an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere.
“I was a little surprised that such a large part of the barrel survived the heating process during re-entry,” said Dr. McDowell, but added that there was no indication that there was anything particularly dangerous in the barrel. He said that in the new commercial era of space exploration, it has become much more difficult to get technical information from private companies to assess risks. With more information, “we could better assess, ‘Are we really out of luck, or should we expect this from all atmospheric re-entries if they happen over land?’
The trunk segment, which is used to carry cargo and also includes the spacecraft’s solar arrays and radiators, is ejected from the capsule’s body shortly after burning is complete as it leaves orbit. “It typically burns up in the atmosphere over the open ocean, posing minimal risk to public safety,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
Last week, after debris from a large Chinese rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a rebuke, saying China “failed to share specific trajectory information as their Long March 5B rocket fell back.” to Earth.” He added that all countries should “share this type of information in advance to provide reliable forecasts of the potential risk of debris impact, especially for heavy vehicles such as the Long March 5B, which carry a significant risk of loss of life and property.”
The possibility that rocket debris could hit a populated area has kept people around the world tracking its trajectory for days. This was the third flight of the Long March 5B, China’s largest rocket, to make a so-called “uncontrolled re-entry” back to Earth.
Last year, a malfunction caused a SpaceX rocket stage to make an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere near Seattle, which looked like bright objects illuminating the night sky. Debris from a burning rocket fell to the ground of a farmer in Washington state. The debris re-entered the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit.
The Australian countryside where Mr Meiners discovered the space debris on July 25 is about 100 miles south of the capital, Canberra.
Ron Lane, a restaurant owner in Dalgety, said that most people in the area – with the exception of himself – are not particularly worried about additional space debris falling on them or their homes.
“If there are three that we know about, there may be 10 more that we don’t know about,” Mr. Lane said by phone from his Tuscany In Dalgety restaurant.
Mr Meiners, who was born on the farm where he found the unidentified wreckage, said his neighbor Mr Wallace called authorities to report more wreckage he found on his property earlier in July. According to Mr. Meiners, public interest increased after Mr. Wallace called the Australian national broadcaster, who later reported the finds of farmers and said that three pieces of debris had been found.
“Then everyone found out and I got about 300 calls,” said Mr Meiners, who has about 5,500 sheep, 100 cattle and 30 horses on a farm in the Numbla Valley area.
His own piece is nearly 10 feet and 1.3 feet tall, he said, and a spokesman for the Australian Space Agency called on Thursday to say his experts plan to visit his property next week to “take a look at it.”
Mr Meiners said he’s enjoyed getting preliminary details about how the debris landed so far and that he’s not sure what’s going to happen next.
He said he would be “happy to keep it” but is also interested in “a little compensation” if space agencies or a company want to return it.
Said Mosteshar, professor of international space law and director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, said a person can only claim compensation if the debris caused him or her any damage or caused him or her any harm. property.
“I assume they will want to return it,” Mr. Miner added. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about it. As I said, I’m a sheep breeder.