The Australian Space Agency has confirmed the 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 location 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 realised the timing and location of the debris falling coincided with a SpaceX spacecraft which re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 7am on 9 July, 20 months after its launch in November 2020.
Tucker believes the debris came from the unpressurised trunk of the SpaceX capsule, which is critical to take off but dumped when returning to earth.
A spokesperson from the Australian Space Agency (ASA) said, “the agency has confirmed the debris is from a SpaceX mission and continues to engage with our counterparts in the US, as well as other parts of the commonwealth and local authorities as appropriate”.
“If the community spots any further suspected debris they should not attempt to handle it 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 that since the finding of the first two pieces of debris had been announced, a third piece had been found farther west, closer to Jindabyne.
He expects there will be more people coming forward with debris “over the coming weeks to months to even years” now that people know the disintegration occurred in the area.
The spokesperson for ASA said it is “operating under the Australian government space re-entry debris plan which outlines roles and responsibilities for key Australian government agencies and committees in supporting the response to space re-entry debris.”
Tucker says there are now discussions about whether SpaceX will collect the debris.
He said the collection is important because it could be related to any liability and damages, which is not the decision for SpaceX but made at a government level.
Tucker said the likely scenario, in his opinion, is that given there was no damage, it won’t have to involve inter-governmental 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$6m in compensation from the USSR, of which they eventually received about half.
Tucker also explained why the space debris didn’t 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 of 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 travel at the speed of the ball. They travel slower because of the transfer of energy.”
Dr Sara Webb, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University, explains it’s also possible the debris could have bounced around and bounced further away from where it had initially landed.
Webb says 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 around Eastern Siberia heard this massive bang … it flattened thousands and thousands of trees around the area from the shock wave explosion, but the actual impact crater they’ve never been able to fully locate.”
Tucker said the debris also doesn’t emerge hot because it’s spent most of its orbiting space where it is very cold and it’s comparatively only a very short amount of time when they heat up going through the Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s kind of like you take a frozen pizza out, put in the microwave for three seconds and then put it back in the freezer, it’s actually going to land cold.”
Webb said that any space debris that doesn’t burn up upon re-entry into the atmosphere is supposed to splashdown at a point called “Point Nemo” in the Pacific Ocean – the furthest point away from any landmass.
The spokesperson from ASA said: “the Agency is committed to the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, including debris mitigation and has highlighted this on the international stage.”
SpaceX has been contacted for comment.