1 Aug 2023

Australian Space Agency reveals origin of space junk discovered on beach in Western Australia

5:02 pm on 1 August 2023
A large canister washed up on a beach at Green Head, 250km north of Perth.

The large canister washed up on a beach at Green Head, 250km north of Perth. Photo: Australian Space Agency

A mysterious object that washed up on a West Australian beach is most likely space debris from a satellite launch vehicle, the Australian Space Agency has concluded.

The discovery on Green Head beach, about 250 kilometres north of Perth, made headlines around the world and left locals scratching their heads.

The object was under police guard for almost a week as the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and other agencies determined whether it was a risk to the public.

After police ruled out a risk to the community, a front end loader was used to transport it to a secure facility nearby as experts tried to establish its origin.

In a statement, the Australian Space Agency said investigators believe the object is most likely debris from an expended third-stage of a polar satellite launch vehicle operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Debris part of rocket fuel tank - expert

Flinders University Associate Professor Alice Gorman said the debris was part of the rocket's fuel tank, which was designed to fall off after launch.

"The part we have is mostly the fuel containment vessel," Professor Gorman said.

"The third stage [of the rocket] ignites, burns until that fuel is gone and the fourth stage is the one that actually gets into Earth orbit," she said.

"Statistically speaking, it's probably a bit of a miracle that we have had so few collisions with people or animals or property on land."

She said authorities could decide to leave the debris in Australia.

"The ISRO might decide to send a team out to Australia to look at the location and look at the actual rocket itself … or they may decide to actually leave it in Australia," she said.

"India is responsible under the United Nations' space treaties for any damage or costs associated with space debris that comes down, but it owns it and can decide what happens to it.

"It could be that the cost of [leaving it in Australia] is less than the cost of shipping or investigating."

Unique research opportunity

Associate Professor Gorman said it was rare for an object of the rocket's size to make landfall, with the Green Head debris providing a unique research opportunity.

"There's an opportunity here to study how the seawater has impacted on the materials of the rocket, how it may have caused them to decay and turn into other chemical products, which may or may not have beneficial effects on marine life," she said.

"It's very common for shipwrecks to become habitats for marine life, and we certainly know this rocket stage was too because it had a lot of barnacles growing on it. So it can be both good and bad.

"There is a growing sensibility that there are all kinds of environmental impacts of all stages, from construction to launch, to use, to re-entry, and learning how those are all connected so we can make smarter decisions in the future."

The debris remains in storage and the Australian Space Agency will work with Indian authorities to determine what should happen to it.

Object could be tourist attraction

WA Premier Roger Cook has suggested the piece could be stored in the WA Museum alongside space debris from NASA's Skylab space station, which was discovered in Balladonia near Esperance in 1979.

"Perhaps this will be an addition to the Sky Lab pieces that we have in the museum and might add to our growing collection of space debris that seems to be collecting in WA," Cook said.

But the Green Head community say there is interest in making it a local tourist attraction.

Shire of Coorow president Moira Girando said the council remains interested in keeping the item.

"The next thing we need to do is wait on the Indian government to see what their actions are," she said.

"If they don't want to claim it and they don't want it back, I would hope it would be able to be retained within the Shire of Coorow near Green Head," she said.

"At this stage we do not have a museum at Green Head or at Leeman, which are coastal towns, so I would think that it would probably be displayed in one of the local parks.

"Everyone is asking about it and everyone's commenting on it. I think the general consensus is to keep it in the Shire of Coorow."


This story was first published by the ABC

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