Why was part of a SpaceX rocket found on a rural farm in Washington?

Falcon 9 is a partially reusable rocket employed by SpaceX mainly for its Starlink missions. Starlink missions occur on a frequent basis and aim to provide remote areas of America and eventually the world with high-speed internet connection. The first stage of the rocket, which provides the initial thrust to break free from Earth’s gravity, detaches once the rocket is in space and autonomously lands safely for reuse. The second stage, however, detaches after correctly propelling the main module onto its correct orbital path. This booster does not land for reuse and instead is left in space as “space junk”, eventually re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on a “deorbit burn” upon which it completely disintegrates. 

The second stage of the Falcon 9 from the most recent Starlink mission, however, missed its deorbit burn which led to a delayed re-entry. The new trajectory of the booster meant it did not completely burn up, and large portions of it fell to the ground. The partial burn up created a beautiful spectacle of illuminated trails in the night sky over rural Washington. The display, resembling a shot from a comet-impact apocalyptic film, was photographed by professional and amateur astronomers alike throughout the north-western state of America. 

The resulting flying debris is not without danger, however. Every day, one to two thousand kilograms of “space junk” including non-functioning satellites, space fragments and rockets enter Earth’s atmosphere. The vast majority are completely disintegrated but the odd large fragment can still survive the three-thousand-degree Celsius atmospheric re-entry. Fortunately, there have been no recorded injuries from falling space debris and the segment from this Falcon 9 rocket was no exception. The part, discovered by a farmer, was confirmed to be a propellant tank and was promptly collected by SpaceX employees who were swiftly dispatched to the impact site. The only lasting damage from this particular incident was a four-inch hole in the ground. 

SpaceX has already been analysing why the second stage of this Falcon 9 rocket missed its re-entry sequence and how such instances can be avoided in future missions but it will certainly not serve as a source of deceleration for the space company’s ambitions for other missions.

One such mission occurred just the other day. On 23rd April, SpaceX sent a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) in collaboration with NASA . The four astronauts will stay on board the station for six months to conduct engineering work and scientific research. 

The ISS is not the only planetary object that SpaceX is targeting. On 16th April, NASA awarded SpaceX the much-coveted contract to help build the spacecraft to land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972. Part of NASA’s Artemis Programme, this will include landing the first ever woman on the moon. The lander will be based on SpaceX’s Starship which is currently still in early, but increasingly successful, testing stages.

SpaceX’s Starship at their Boca Chica launch facility

More ambitious missions, such as SpaceX’s civilian space travel programme, are also passing through important checkpoints. In early April, SpaceX announced the final crew members for their first ever commercial space flight that will launch later this year.  Such a launch may potentially signal a new era of tourism whilst also redefining the concept of what it means ‘to go on holiday’. After all, why look up at the stars on a camping trip when you can travel to them instead.

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