When a rocket is launched it pushes its payload into space, but once its job is done there’s always a question of where it might end up. SpaceX, which has mastered the art of landing its first stage booster, routinely recovers the vital component, refurbishes it, and then reuses it in the future. However, the second rocket stage — which jumps into action once the first stage is done burning and detaches — doesn’t get nearly as lucky. It typically deorbits and burns up in the atmosphere where the friction is so great that it is essentially vaporized. However, sometimes a piece or two will make it to the ground, and that’s exactly what happened after the company’s March 25th launch.
People saw the second stage ignite in the atmosphere, reporting everything from meteorites to aliens (of course), but the vast majority of the second stage that lit up the skies was destroyed completely… but not all of it. A large chunk of the rocket, a vessel that is used to store helium and measures five feet in length, crashed into a farmer’s field in Washington state. SpaceX had to go pick it up.
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It’s rare for a chunk of a second-stage booster to produce any sizable debris on the ground. In this case, the tank somehow survived the fiery inferno of reentry and tumbled down to Earth where it reportedly left “a 4-inch dent in the ground,” according to reports quoting the local sheriff.
The farmer spotted the debris in his field and contacted the local sheriff who then went to investigate. Deputies identified the debris to the best of their ability and then got in contact with SpaceX. SpaceX was able to confirm that the debris was indeed a chunk of their spacecraft and the company sent a retrieval team to pick it up and, presumably, dispose of it.
The tumbling tank didn’t cause any damage or injuries, but rocket components can still be harmful even after they’ve landed. Rocket fuel and other chemicals that may be present on pieces of a rocket that survive reentry can be toxic to animals and humans, and some of them can cause caustic burns and other nastiness. It’s unclear if this particular rocket chunk posed any risk to anyone, but SpaceX clearly wanted to play it safe and, out of courtesy to the farmer, come and pick up their trash as soon as possible.
SpaceX reportedly has considered trying to recover its second-stage boosters so that it might reuse them as it does with its first rocket stages. Plans for a way to accomplish that were being drawn up and tested but boss Elon Musk apparently decided it was going to be too difficult and costly, and wanted to devote the company’s resources to other things.
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