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Newly Fallen Space Junk in Australia Likely Belongs to SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon Capsule carried four astronauts to the ISS in November 2020.

The SpaceX Dragon Capsule carried four astronauts to the ISS in November 2020.
Photo: NASA

Pieces of debris found on Australian farmland are suspected of originating from a SpaceX mission that launched nearly two years ago. It seems likely that the parts belong to SpaceX, but the private space company has yet to own up to the fallen remnants.

The Australian Space Agency is currently investigating apparent space junk that crashed onto the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales, The Guardian reported. Three large pieces of burnt debris were found between July 14 and 25, one resembling an alien monument planted amidst the grassy field.

Field experts have identified the discarded pieces as belonging to a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that carried four astronauts to the International Space Station in November 2020, marking the company’s first crewed mission to the orbiting space station. The spacecraft then reentered Earth’s atmosphere on July 9, forming a fiery streak in the morning skies above Australia that was captured by users on social media.

“This is a part of the trunk of a Crew Dragon (which is jettisoned before the Dragon capsule returns to earth and has no propulsion system),” Marco Langbroek, an astrodynamics and space missions lecturer at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter. The trunk, according to Langbroek, is a “4 x 4 meter [13 x 13 feet] hollow shell with fins” weighing several hundred pounds. SpaceX has not confirmed if this space junk belongs to the company and did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

The Monaro police department has taken possession of the objects. “We believe it could be associated with SpaceX but we won’t be confirming it until we actually get acknowledgement from them,” Monaro Police District Commander Superintendent John Klepczarek told ABC South East NSW.

The Crew Dragon is made up of several components, including its detachable trunk.

The Crew Dragon is made up of several components, including its detachable trunk.
Illustration: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon trunk is tucked beneath the spacecraft and it carries the cargo, and also powers the spacecraft’s ascent to space through attached solar panels. The trunk stays attached to the Dragon until it is about to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, at which point it detaches from the reusable spacecraft. As the Dragon lands back on Earth, the trunk is left to reenter the atmosphere on its own, resulting in an uncontrolled reentry.

With a growing private space industry and increasing space ambitions for countries like China, incidents of falling spacecraft parts are poised to happen more frequently. Pieces of a Chinese rocket fell on parts of Indonesia and Malaysia this past weekend after its core stage fell back to Earth on July 30. Although these incidents of space debris have yet to cause any casualties, a new study suggests there’s an increasing likelihood that space junk could injure or harm a person down on Earth. With that in mind, companies like SpaceX need to account for where their rockets fall, or at least own up to it when they land near populated areas.

More: Suspected Debris From Chinese Rocket Falls Onto Three Indian Villages

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