MELBOURNE : Chunks of space debris were reportedly found on farmland in the Australia mountains, and this week NASA and Australian authorities confirmed that the objects are “likely” a scrap of hardware from a SpaceX Dragon capsule that was intentionally jettisoned as the spacecraft reentered the Earth’s atmosphere last May.
SpaceX did not return a request for comment, and typically does not interact with news media.
Local media reports said at least three pieces of debris have been recovered in the mountain range near Australia’s southernmost tip, and according to a statement from the Australian Space Agency, it “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.”
According to NASA’s statement, SpaceX also confirmed the debris is likely to be a part of the Dragon’s trunk. The trunk provides electricity and other necessary services to the main capsule during its time in orbit but is discarded as the main capsule slices back through the thick upper atmosphere on its way home.
“The trunk segment … typically burns up in the atmosphere over the open ocean posing minimal risk to public safety,” according to a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses and oversees commercial spaceflight operations in the United States.
“In this case, it likely remained in orbit for more than one year and some pieces of trunk hardware survived to reach the Earth,” the FAA statement reads.
SpaceX operates two types of Dragon spacecraft: one that is designed solely for shuttling food, research and other supplies to the International Space Station, and another, called Crew Dragon, that’s designed for carrying astronauts. The scraps of the Dragon trunk found in Australia were likely part of a the spacecraft that carried four astronauts home from the ISS on May 2, 2021, according to NASA.
The Crew-1 astronauts — comprised of NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japan’s space agency — made a safe return aboard the main portion of the capsule, which splashed down off the coast of Florida before being hauled to safety by nearby recovery ships last year.
Members of the public that believe they may have found a piece of space debris can reach out to SpaceX’s recovery hotline at 1-866-623-0234 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Typically, discarded pieces of space hardware fall to a watery grave in the ocean. But they do sometimes turn up on land.
Last year, for example, what was believed to be a piece of a SpaceX rocket’s second stage — which powers the rocket after the lower first stage expends all its fuel — landed on a farm in Washington state.
SpaceX does not attempt to recover the second stage of its rockets, though it does land, refurbish and refly most of its first-stage rocket boosters, which are the largest part of the rocket and give the initial boost at liftoff. Dragon capsules ride to orbit sitting atop the rockets.