A pressure vessel from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage fell on a Washington state farm last week, leaving a “4-inch dent in the ground,” the local sheriff’s office said Friday.
The black Composite-Overwrapped Pressure Vessel, or COPV, was a holdover from the alien invasion-looking breakup of a Falcon 9 second stage over Oregon and Washington on March 26, local officials said. The stage reentered the atmosphere in an unusual place in the sky after a payload of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites was sent into orbit.
A Grant County, Washington owner, who told authorities he did not want to be identified, found the errant COPV – about the size and shape of a hefty punching bag – on his ranch on his ranch last weekend. He reported it to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, GCSO spokesman Kyle Foreman said in a phone call. A sergeant was sent out on Monday to check.
“Neither the property owner nor our sergeant are, of course, rocket scientists, but judging from what happened a few days earlier, it seemed to them as if it were possibly debris from the return of the Falcon 9,” Foreman said. So the sergeant called SpaceX, who confirmed to GCSO that it turned out to be theirs, and sent employees to pick up the COPV on Tuesday. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
“Of course we had no protocol for this, so we made a mistake to return someone’s property to them,” Foreman said.
A COPV is part of the Falcon 9’s second stage, the smaller part of the rocket that detaches from the main stage at the edge of space and moves satellites further from Earth. The COPV stores helium at a pressure of nearly 6,000 psi, which is used to pressurize the large second stage propellant tanks.
While most parts of Stage Two were either in orbit for years or reentered Earth over the ocean, last week’s stage put on a spectacular nighttime show over populated areas in the northwestern US. And somehow a COPV somehow ended up about four inches into the owner’s farmland about 100 miles inland from the Pacific coast.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a keen tracker of things in space, had watched the second phase and said its return was no surprise – but the timing and location of the return was a head scraper.
“It’s a bit of a puzzle that the stage was removed out of control on March 4 – it looks like something went wrong, but SpaceX didn’t say anything about it,” McDowell said. However, these types of re-entries take place every few weeks. It’s just unusual for it to happen in a densely populated area just because that’s just a small portion of the Earth. “
The COPV in Washington wasn’t the only piece of debris to hit US soil in recent weeks. A absolutely bad storm from debris rained over SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas on Tuesday, when a Starship prototype exploded in mid-air during its attempt to land, marking the fourth explosion of a Mars rocket prototype in a row in Elon Musk’s fast-paced Starship test campaign . The 16-story high test missile was successfully launched more than six miles into the air, but its return was utterly unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of all test data from the mission.