Researchers turn to wind tunnels to predict where space junk will land

The skywatching world has been turned upside down this week with multiple reports of space junk falling on Australian farms.

Experts say that the higher the satellites go up, the more it makes sense for others to go down.

Mark Rigby, former curator of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, agrees.

“The number of operational satellites has almost doubled in the last 18 months. It’s phenomenal,” he said.

But if you’re planning a “space junk” hunt, don’t get your hopes up.

“Fortunately, most of our Earth is covered in ocean. So most space junk actually falls harmlessly, and a lot of space junk vaporizes before it even reaches our planet’s surface,” Ms. Rigby.

But sometimes he lands in a cow pen.

James Stirton discovered the wreckage of a rocket on his homestead in South West Queensland near Quilpie in 2008.

Mr Stirton’s space debris is now on display at the Cosmos Center in Charleville.(Supplied: Cosmos Center)

At the time, he and his wife Sue were getting calls from around the world and receiving visits from researchers wanting to inspect the round fuel cell that had landed near his cattle in the brush.

“They checked it for radiation and wanted to take it out, and I said, ‘No, it’s going to stay here,'” he explained.

The space wreck, officially named 2006-047-C, lived in a farm shed until the couple retired.

It is now on permanent display at the Cosmos Center in Charleville.

A pragmatic farmer, Mr Stirton said his discovery had not led to any further space exploration on his property.

“It was during the drought years, so we had a lot of other things to do,” he said.

“And I thought it would only happen once in my life, so no, I never thought I would find more space junk.”

But he did.

“A few years later we found another one,” he said.

“Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever spoken to anyone about this second discovery,” Ms Stirton laughed.

Serious field of study

A specialist project at the University of Southern Queensland was launched earlier this year, focusing on space debris.

“We’re starting to see more and more of these kinds of things happening,” said Fabian Zander, senior researcher at the University of Southern Queensland.

A man stands next to a large machine with a round door
Fabian Zander uses wind tunnels to study the “separation of objects in hypersonic flow”.(Provided: University of Southern Queensland)

“I’d like to hope there aren’t too many more [incidents] like SpaceX’s…but we need a better understanding of the disappearance and dispersal of things that re-enter the atmosphere.”

He said while most controlled re-entries were aimed at the “graveyard of space” in the South Pacific, some non-functional satellites could go down anywhere.

“Even the impact of the sun shining on the object can alter its strength and trajectory,” he explained.

“The Earth’s atmosphere expands and contracts slightly depending on the weather.

“When something is orbiting in the upper atmosphere, the effect is slightly different depending on the particular atmospheric conditions, and that cannot be predicted with certainty at this stage.”

But he said there was no need to worry about being hit by “zombie” satellites when you go out.

“There has only ever been one person who has been hit by space junk,” he said.

“A lady named Lottie Williams in the United States was hit by a lump in her shoulder, and it didn’t hurt her at all.”

a man stands in front of a rocket
Mark Rigby says the chance of finding space junk is “pretty low”.(Provided: Mark Rigby)

On the hunt for space debris, we will go?

Mr Rigby said the recent finds could spur people on to search for debris, but the chances of finding something were “pretty low”.

“Even if you’re using satellite imagery to find those pieces of Skylab that fell in 1979, which are undoubtedly still there, you’re trying to find things that could be a meter in diameter – or even more. small – in a vast country.

people gather in an enclosure with space junk, sheepdogs and a ute
Farmers Mick Miners and Jock Wallace, along with ANU astrophysicist Brad Tucker, visit a site in New South Wales where two pieces of space junk were found.(ABC South East NSW: Adriane Reardon)

“So, I’ll say good luck to you.”

He also warned of possible dangers.

“There may be space junk that still contains toxic material. With these things, it’s often best to contact the authorities if you find something you think is space junk.

“Have it checked before handling it.”

And if you find something, don’t get too attached to it.

“It still belongs to the country of origin,” Mr Rigby said.

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