On July 9, a large part of a SpaceX rocket was meant to land in the Pacific Ocean off Australia. Instead, an enormous sonic boom was heard over southern New South Wales, and a bright fireball was seen for hundreds of kilometers. Weeks later, two sheep farmers found large metal objects in their fields, and further finds have been reported since. Although the connection is yet to be confirmed, experts are confident we have a rare case of pieces of space junk hitting land, rather than the ocean as intended.
Professor Brad Tucker of the Australian National University told IFLScience he gets reports of possible space junk often enough. In most cases, however, they turn out to be something with more Earthly origins, or small objects whose history is hard to determine with confidence.
When farmers Mick Miners and Jock Wallace got in contact with Tucker, however, the sound and light show from weeks before made him suspect they had the real thing. Fortunately, he also didn’t have to travel far from Canberra to their properties near Dalgety to check.
Tucker not only found items large enough to be hard to explain any other way, but the burn marks from re-entry are clearly visible. They also carry serial numbers, which have been sent by the Australian Space Agency to the American Federal Aviation Administration to pass on to SpaceX, who has not commented at the time of writing.
“If it is from SpaceX the first question is whether they want it back,” Tucker told IFLScience.
If so, the cost of retrieval is on them. If not, while SpaceX might morally owe the farmers payment for the clean-up, enforcing that may be hard. The Shire of Esperance famously sent NASA a littering bill when parts of the Skylab space station landed in its territory in 1979, but this was a stunt without legal force. The Australian government declined to cause an international incident by demanding it be paid, although some patriotic Americans crowd-sourced the cost 30 years later.
That’s probably not too much of a concern for Wallace and Miners, however. “They’ve already had offers to buy the pieces,” Tucker noted, which should more than cover the cost of removal. Further discoveries may lower the going rate, but even with two additional pieces reported further west space junk on your property looks like more of a windfall than a burden.
Interest is high because crash landings are so rare. Tucker said there has only been a handful confirmed in the history of space flight, largely because smaller objects burn up entirely. “There might have been others that weren’t recorded,” he noted. “If this one had come in after midnight there might have been few sightings and we’d be less sure if the finds were real.”
Inevitably, many more objects, like the two recent Long March booster rockets, have landed in the ocean by good luck rather than good management. Unless spacefaring nations and companies start taking the dangers more seriously, however, the dramatic increase in launches in coming years could ensure our luck runs out.
The equipment is almost certainly the trunk for sending unpressurized cargo into space from the Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station, which launched in November 2020.
It's poorly controlled entry is not a great look for a company that has made the reuse of its rockets central to its success. However, Tucker noted, the continental landing “probably reflects the sheer volume of launches SpaceX is conducting,” giving so many more chances for things to go wrong. Nevertheless, he noted this is not an item SpaceX has experience in launching and returning, and it “might need a better design” to improve re-entry control in the future.