A pressure vessel from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage fell on a man’s farm in Washington State last week, leaving a “4-inch dent in the soil,” the local sheriff’s office said Friday.
The black Composite-Overwrapped Pressure Vessel, or COPV, was a remnant 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 spot in the sky after sending a payload of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites to orbit.
A Grant County, Washington property owner, who told authorities he didn’t want to be identified, found the errant COPV — roughly the size and shape of a hefty punching bag — sitting on his farm one morning last weekend. He reported it to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, GCSO spokesman Kyle Foreman said in a phone call. A sergeant was dispatched on Monday to check it out.
“Neither the property owner nor our sergeant are rocket scientists, of course, but judging from what had happened a few days prior, it looked to them like it was possibly debris from the Falcon 9 reentry,” Foreman said. So the sergeant called SpaceX, which confirmed to GCSO it appeared to be their’s and dispatched employees to retrieve the COPV on Tuesday. SpaceX didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Of course we didn’t have a protocol for this, so we just erred on the side of returning someone’s property to them,” Foreman said.
A COPV is a part of the Falcon 9’s second stage, the smaller section of the rocket that detaches from the main stage at the edge of space and boosts satellites farther from Earth. The COPV stores helium at pressures of nearly 6,000psi, which is used to pressurize the second stage’s large tanks of propellant.
While most second stage parts either hang out in orbit for years or reenter Earth over the ocean, last week’s stage put on a spectacular nighttime show over populated areas in the northwestern US. And somehow from that show, a COPV ended up embedded roughly 4 inches into the property owner’s farmland, some 100 miles inward from the Pacific coast.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a keen tracker of things in space, had been keeping tabs on the second stage and said its reentry wasn’t a surprise — but the timing and location of the reentry was a head-scratcher.
“It is a bit of a puzzle that the stage was not de-orbited under control back on March 4 — looks like something went wrong, but SpaceX has said nothing about it,” McDowell said. “However, reentries of this kind happen every couple of weeks. It’s just unusual that it happens over a densely populated area, just because that’s a small fraction of the Earth.”
The COPV in Washington wasn’t the only piece of debris to land on US soil in recent weeks. An absolute hellstorm of debris rained over SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities on Tuesday when a Starship prototype exploded mid-air during its attempt to land, marking the fourth explosion of a Mars rocket prototype in a row in Elon Musk’s speedy Starship test campaign. The 16-story-tall test rocket successfully launched over six miles in the air, but its return was utterly unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of all test data from the mission.