A farmer in the Australian outback is on a mission to identify a strange ball of twisted metal — purported to be fallen space junk — which mysteriously turned up on his remote property.
James Stirton of Cheepie, 80 miles from the town of Charleville in southwestern Queensland, was heading out to feed cattle on his 100,000-acre ranch when he came upon the bizarre-looking blackened ball.
"It was just off the road and I had been going up there every couple of days to feed cattle, so I would be surprised if it had been there more than a week," Stirton said. "We got a shock when we first saw it. I had no idea what it was."
Suspecting it was a piece of space junk, Stirton contacted the Aerospace Corporation — a research arm of the U.S. government — to get some sort of confirmation.
"I know about sheep and cattle, but I don't know much about satellites," he said.
While a spokesman for Aerospace Corp. told NEWS.com.au it was still working to identify the object, aerospace-industry sources who contacted Stirton believe it to be part of a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1998.
Although he made the discovery in November of last year, Stirton waited until Easter to launch his own proper investigation into the object's origin.
"I talked to some people in Charleville and got on the Internet and kind of figured it out for myself," Stirton said.
He now believes the object is a helium tank wrapped in carbon fiber from a booster rocket used to launch communications satellites.
Stirton said the ball appears to have landed partially on a tree stump, making a crater a few inches deep before rolling about 15 feet to its resting spot.
"If it hit you, you wouldn't have gotten up," he said. "We don't get many visitors here, but anyone who has seen it has either wanted to touch it or has stood back afraid that someone was going to jump out of it."
About 200 pieces of space junk — parts of satellites and jettisoned rockets — re-enter the atmosphere each year.
Most of them disintegrate, but some pieces survive the enormous heat generated on re-entry and make it to the ground.
One in a trillion
The chances of being struck by space junk are one in a trillion, and the only person ever reportedly struck described it as feeling like a gentle tap on her shoulder.
Yet Kerrie Dougherty, the space-technology curator at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, said the objects could slam into the Earth at hundreds of miles an hour.
"It's not that uncommon to find something like this, particularly in that part of southwest Queensland ,because there is a very large area of ground for these objects to fall on," she said. "They're not falling out there every day, but there a few reports of people finding stuff each year."
Dougherty said most rockets were launched over desolate areas or oceans to avoid parts falling on people, and modern satellites were equipped with the ability to maneuver and fall back to earth over unpopulated areas.
As for Stirton, he doesn't seem sure what to do with his piece.
"Everybody keeps telling me that it's probably worth a lot of money," he said, "but no one's offered me anything for it yet."