Newly Fallen Space Junk in the Snowy Mountains Belongs to SpaceX

Newly Fallen Space Junk in the Snowy Mountains Belongs to SpaceX
The SpaceX Dragon Capsule carried four astronauts to the ISS in November 2020. (Photo: NASA)

Pieces of debris found on farmland in the Snowy Mountains originated from a SpaceX mission that launched nearly two years ago, an investigation from the Australian Space Agency has confirmed.

Three large pieces of burnt debris were found between July 14 and 25, one resembling an alien monument planted amidst the grassy field. The ABC said the space junk is considered to be the biggest pieces found in Australia since 1979.

Field experts had 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 Aussies 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-metre hollow shell with fins” weighing several hundred pounds. SpaceX did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but the Australian Space Agency has since confirmed the origin.

“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,” an Australian Space Agency spokesperson told the ABC.

“The agency 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.”

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

This article has been updated since it was first published.