Piece of SpaceX Capsule Crashes to Earth in Australian Field

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The expense of reaching space continues to drop, and that has led to an explosion in launches over the past few years. One of the most prolific is SpaceX, which has multiple NASA contracts and a network of internet satellites that regularly call for new launches. But not everything we send up there stays put. Residents of southern Australia were surprised recently to find debris from a SpaceX mission scattered across the landscape. An astrophysicist who was called in to investigate the wreckage said it was a first-of-its-kind discovery. 

The debris crashed to Earth on July 9th, but a farmer living near Dalgety, New South Wales didn’t spot it until several weeks later. He initially believed the largest piece of wreckage was a dead tree because of how it jutted up from the ground. Local authorities contacted Dr. Brad Tucker of the Mt. Stromlo Observatory in Australia to inspect the find. Tucker has since posted a video (below) showing the spacecraft fragments up close. 

According to Tucker, the material came from the cargo trunk of SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission. This flight was a major milestone, marking the first time SpaceX flew astronauts to the International Space Station on a regular, non-demonstration Dragon mission. The spacecraft launched on November 16, 2020, and remained at the station until May 2021. Before returning to Earth, the Dragon’s cargo trunk was jettisoned with the expectation it would eventually burn up in the atmosphere. And burn up it did. 

Space agencies continued to track it in orbit as it was a potential hazard, but it was detected reentering the atmosphere over Australia in early July 2022. Local reports confirm the object broke up above Australia that day, and that’s how it came to skewer the ground near Dalgety. Tucker says that the piece sticking out of the ground, which is about three meters tall, is most likely one of the trunk fins. Tucker gets up close with the debris, showing the carbon mesh used to insulate the spacecraft. Several smaller pieces were found on an adjacent piece of land, but they weren’t stabbing the landscape. 

Debris like this falls to Earth on a regular basis, but the pieces are usually smaller after crumbling under the intense heat of reentry. What’s left usually ends up in the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface. Lucky, because it looks like this fin could have skewered more than the ground. It’s rare to see anything this large land near a populated area. Tucker notes that he’s never seen a piece of space debris land like this.

Crew-1 when docked at the ISS. You can see the trunk fins near the back of the spacecraft.

We might see this more often in the future, though, as launches from SpaceX and others ramp up. The Australian Space Agency has asked anyone who finds additional debris to contact a hotline set up by SpaceX. There is currently no indication the materials are harmful.

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