Farmer finds hunk of charred space debris, potentially from a SpaceX rocket

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canola field
The space debris landed in a canola field in Canada. DepositPhotos

A hunk of space debris that crash-landed in a canola field has one farmer seeing dollar signs and hockey sticks. 

Near Ituna—a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada, Barry Sawchuk and his son “were out driving around just checking fields to see where we could start seeding” when the two discovered a roughly 88-pound, 6.5-feet wide charred chunk of metal and fibers. 

“Originally, we just thought it was garbage until we got closer,” Sawchuk told CBC. Upon closer inspection, “we said it was space junk right away, but everybody had a chuckle over it.”

Regina University astronomy professor Samantha Lawler, who studies how planetary orbits evolve over time, traced the debris to a February SpaceX rocket re-entry, CBC wrote on Wednesday. SpaceX, the Canadian Space Agency and NASA did not immediately respond to PopSci’s requests for comment on the debris and its potential connection to the private space company.

[ Related: Yes, a chunk of the space station crashed into a house in Florida ]

Though the discovery is somewhat novel today, space junk including dead satellites, spent rocket boosters, and jettisoned gear is quickly piling up in low-Earth orbit. There are 36,500 debris objects greater than 10 cm in our orbit, the European Space Agency estimates.

It is “really just luck” that the object wound up on a family farm in rural Canada, instead of landing in a more populated area, Lawler told CBC. “If that had hit in the middle of Regina or [New York City], it very easily could have killed someone,” the professor said. The site of the discovery is a roughly three-hour drive north from the North Dakota border. 

In March, a smaller hunk of orbital junk tore through the roof of a home in Naples, FL. That particular chunk originated from the International Space Station, NASA said a month later. Originally, the agency expected the hardware, a cargo pallet containing aging batteries, to “fully burn up during entry through Earth’s atmosphere,” said NASA. Instead, it pierced through a ceiling and “almost hit my son,” homeowner Alejandro Otero told Florida broadcaster WINK News.

[ Related: How harpoons, magnets, and ion blasts could help us clean up space junk ]

“It’s not uncommon for these things to survive and make it to the surface,” Moriba Jah, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, told PopSci in April. While such objects tend to land in the ocean, Jah said that “statistically, [space debris] will kill somebody at some point.” 

Unharmed and sporting a reflective safety jacket and work boots, Sawchuk offered a tour of the suspected SpaceX object in a video interview above. 

Turning over the hunk as webbed fibers audibly crunched, the farmer pointed out a mounted cylinder and layers of webbing. “Whether this is insulation, I have no idea. Don’t build spaceships for a living. I farm,” he added. 

Sawchuk said he’s interested in selling the discovery and donating some of the money locally. 

“Here in Ituna, Saskatchewan, we’re in the process of building a [hockey] rink,” Sawchuk told CBC. “If I can, I’m going to sell it, and some of the proceeds will go to the rink.”

It’s not clear if Sawchuk would face any legal hurdles if he attempted to sell the debris. So far, no company nor agency has publicly claimed ownership of the debris. 

If the object belonged to NASA, for example, the U.S. would consider it government property. “You do not have the luxury of trying to sell [such objects] on eBay,” former NASA orbital debris chief scientist Nick Johnson told space artifacts site Collect Space in 2021. 

In 1999, eBay pulled what appeared to be “a piece of a heat shield tile” from the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, per Collect Space. In 2003, eBay pulled listings of alleged debris from the Columbia shuttle.

Yet, while eBay has a history of pulling governmental space debris, smaller objects such as purported SpaceX heat shield tiles and tile fragments, currently proliferate on the auction site, reportedly selling in the thousands.