Three big hunks of space junk have been found in rural Australia, suspected to be detritus from a SpaceX mission launched in 2020. Now it’s time for the less exciting part of space exploration: the cleanup.
The unidentified fallen objects were found between July 14 and 25, scattered across the Snowy Mountains region of the state of New South Wales. The latest piece, discovered by sheep farmer Mick Miners, stands nearly 10 feet tall and is firmly embedded in a paddock by one end.
Understandably, Miners was initially baffled by his unexpected find. His neighbour Jock Wallace, who also found some debris, was told by Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority to talk to NASA about it.
Fortunately, these humble farmers won’t have to figure out what to do with the space junk themselves. The Australian Space Agency is working with the U.S. to determine exactly what the chunks of metal are and who they belong to. The piece found by Miners at least appears to have a serial number, which should help.
While the formal identification process is still underway, informally it’s believed Australia’s surprise installation art comes courtesy of SpaceX — specifically its Crew Dragon Resilience.
SpaceX’s Crew-1 flight transported four astronauts to the International Space Station in November 2020, successfully conducting the company’s first operational crewed mission. The same capsule subsequently returned them to Earth in early May last year, with jettisoned debris from the mission expected to reenter the atmosphere approximately two months later.
As noted by astronomer Jonathan McDowell, Dalgety is near the Dragon’s July 8 re-entry path (or July 9 in Australia, as it’s across the international dateline from the U.S.). Several Australians reported hearing a sonic boom and seeing a fast-moving object in the sky at the time.
Though this particular piece of plummeting death landed in an empty field, a recent study found there’s a one in 10 chance somebody will be killed by falling space debris within the next 10 years. People in the Global South are also at higher risk — that is, areas such as Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, as opposed to Western and European countries. Australia is considered part of the Global North.
SpaceX hasn’t yet acknowledged or claimed its alleged space litter. Yet even if CEO Elon Musk continues to pretend he does not see it, he may not necessarily have to pick up after himself.
According to Article 7 of the UN’s Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, the country from which a rocket is launched is responsible for any damage it causes. These agreements have been ratified by both Australia and the U.S., meaning that the American government may be left to clean up Musk’s suspected mess.