One night in late March, residents of the Pacific Northwest saw mysterious streaks light overhead. It appeared that the unscheduled light show came from the debris of a SpaceX rocket that was launched at the beginning of the month, Mike Ives reports for the New York Times.
Most expected the debris from the rocket would disintegrate during re-entry, as the friction from falling through the atmosphere at high speeds tends to burn man-made objects to ash unless they’re specifically designed for the task.
But a few days after the debris lit up the sky, officials identified a large piece of rocket debris on a farm in Washington state, Joey Roulette reports for the Verge. Then, on April 10, another object resembling rocket debris washed up ashore in Oregon's Lincoln County, Jayati Ramakrishnan reports for the Oregonian.
Both objects resemble Composite-Overwrapped Pressure Vessels, which are tanks that hold hydrogen at about 6,000 pounds per square inch to pressurize the propellant used in the rocket. The people who found each object called the authorities, who then contacted SpaceX.
“Of course we didn’t have a protocol for this, so we just erred on the side of returning someone’s property to them,” says Kyle Foreman, a spokesperson for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, to the Verge. SpaceX has retrieved the object that fell on the Washington farm.
As Eric Berger reports for Ars Technica, the ordeal began when the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket failed to properly de-orbit. The second stage is the upper part of the rocket that delivers its payload—in this case, 60 Starlink satellites—into orbit around Earth.
The lower part of the rocket, called the first stage, is the piece that SpaceX brings back to Earth to reuse. The second stage is not reused, but instead is usually left in orbit as space junk, or its single engine will re-light and guide it to a reentry over the Pacific Ocean.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell shared his observations about the lights over the Pacific Northwest as the event unfolded. He identified the second stage as coming from a Falcon 9 launch from March 4, per the New York Times.
Initially, experts expected the debris would disintegrate, given its fiery display, or it would land in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains. But dense pieces of the rocket were most likely to survive the descent. The composite-overwrapped pressure vessel found on the Washington farm created four-inch-deep divot in the ground where it landed.
“SpaceX recovered a Composite-Overwrapped Pressure Vessel from last week’s Falcon 9 re-entry,” tweeted the Grant County Sheriff, per Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky. “It was found on private property in southwest Grant County this week. Media and treasure hunters: we are not disclosing specifics. The property owner simply wants to be left alone.”
SpaceX picked up the debris after being contacted by the authorities.
The strange object that washed ashore in Oregon is also a large cylindrical canister. It hasn’t been definitively identified as a SpaceX vessel yet, although the company confirmed that it appeared “consistent with a composite overwrapped pressure vessel,” reports the Oregonian.
Images show it is about the size of a wood palette and covered in frayed, dark-colored fiber. The object was first found by a fisherman and stored at a local business while authorities contacted Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Central Oregon Coast Fire & Rescue department to determine the object didn’t hold anything hazardous and conduct further inspections.
“It is a bit of a puzzle that the stage was not de-orbited under control back on March 4 — looks like something went wrong, but SpaceX has said nothing about it,” says McDowell to the Verge. “However, reentries of this kind happen every couple of weeks. It’s just unusual that it happens over a densely populated area, just because that’s a small fraction of the Earth.”