From a distance, Mick Miners thought the strange object on his expansive sheep farm in Australia might have been a blackened dead tree. Experts say it's actually something far more exciting: a 9-foot-long chunk of a SpaceX capsule—one of the few pieces of space debris to fall to Earth and not end up in one of its oceans. "I've never seen a piece of space junk fall like this," says Dr. Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, per the BBC. He was called to examine the object resembling an "alien obelisk" after Miners discovered it standing vertical in a grassy field in the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales last month, per the Guardian.
It's one of three pieces of suspected space debris found near Australia's southernmost tip between July 14 and 25. Per the BBC, the piece Miners found fell from the sky on July 9, though he didn't discover it till later in the month. NASA says the object is "likely" a scrap piece of a Dragon capsule that brought four astronauts home from ISS on May 2, 2021, per CNN. NASA says SpaceX confirmed the piece is probably a part of the Dragon's trunk, which provides electricity during orbit but is discarded as the capsule reenters Earth's atmosphere, though the company has yet to comment publicly.
"You can see clear scorching marks from reentry," Tucker says, per Space.com, adding that this would be the largest documented piece of space debris in Australia since the breakup of the Skylab space station in 1979. It's rare to find any space debris on land. But such discoveries are likely to become more common in the coming years, "as the number of rockets sent to space has hugely increased," per the BBC. A piece of a SpaceX rocket's second stage turned up on a farm in Washington state just last year, with SpaceX later retrieving it. For now, the Monaro police department is holding onto the debris, per Gizmodo. The Australian Space Agency has urged anyone who finds additional items to contact SpaceX's recovery hotline. (Read more Australia stories.)