NASA Sheds Light on the “Wicked-Looking” Piece of Space Debris Found in North Carolina

By: May Man Last updated: Jul 10, 2024

A large piece of space debris discovered last month on a mountain trail in North Carolina has been confirmed by NASA to have originated from a SpaceX capsule that traveled to the International Space Station.

The debris was found in late May by an employee of The Glamping Collective, a luxury resort in Haywood County, near Asheville. Justin Clontz, who maintains the grounds at the resort, described the slab as “kind of wicked looking.”

Space Debris Orbiting Earth

The universe is filled with an unimaginable number of rogue celestial objects ranging in size from tiny rocks to enormous meteors, many of which fly past our planet regularly. 

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A photograph of NASA’s Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD),

Source: Wikimedia

According to the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, researchers track between 200 and 400 items entering Earth’s atmosphere each day. Yet, despite all these objects, few ever reach Earth. 

How Often Does Space Debris Reach Earth?

Due to our technological advances, humanity is also responsible for many items now floating around in space, which researchers call space junk or debris. 

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A photograph of Earth from space

Source: Wikimedia

This could be anything ranging from parts of a rocket to much larger objects such as dead satellites. 

Recent Discovery of SpaceX Debris in North Carolina

Since the 1950s, humans have launched thousands of rockets and satellites into orbit, many of which never come home. Currency estimates suggest thousands of dead satellites currently orbit our planet, and it may pose a severe issue one day. 

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A photograph of a SpaceX Satellite

Source: Tim Peake / ESA/NASA via Getty Images

Despite most of the items remaining in orbit, a piece of something returns to Earth from time to time. Most recently, a small piece of space debris landed near Asheville, North Carolina. 

NASA’s Identification

NASA has identified the roughly 3-foot piece as part of the “trunk” or service module of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. 

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SpaceX debris found in North Carolina. Debris is on a grassy area

Source: The Glamping Collective

The capsule returned four astronauts to Earth from the International Space Station on March 12.

What Part of the Capsule Fell to Earth

The small piece of the SpaceX capsule known as the trunk was previously located at the base of the Crew Dragon spacecraft beneath the astronauts’ seats

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A photograph of planet Earth from space

Source: Wikimedia

It is used to carry cargo and is covered in solar panels that provide power during the flight and while on the station.

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Not Expected to Re-enter Earth

This section of the spacecraft is jettisoned shortly before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

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An artist's depiction of Planet Earth from space

Source: Wikimedia

NASA expected the trunk to burn up completely in the atmosphere, but the discovery of this piece, along with others, suggests some parts can survive the re-entry.

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NASA Projects One Piece of Space Debris Hits Earth Each Year

Despite the excessive amount of space debris floating around our planet, few pieces ever return to Earth, let alone pose a potential risk to human safety. 

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An up-close look at the top of Boeing’s Starliner craft seen in the daytime.

Source: NASA/Joel Kowsky/Wikimedia Commons

According to NASA, on average, one cataloged piece of space debris has fallen to Earth daily over the past five decades. 

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No Comment Yet

Despite several media companies reaching out to SpaceX, it has yet to respond to a request for comment.

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SpaceX debris found in North Carolina. Debris is on a grassy area with hills and blue sky in background

Source: The Glamping Collective

The debris Clontz found was charred and covered in carbon fiber weaving.

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Like on TV

Weighing about 90 pounds, it was too large and awkward for one person to carry.

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gamer watching content creator piloting spaceship galaxy livestream

Source: DC Studio, Freepik

Clontz was initially uncertain if it was safe to touch, remarking, “It’s just something that you don’t normally see. I’ve seen spaceships and stuff on TV, but the average person doesn’t get to see it up close.”

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Extra Debris Nearby

Smaller debris pieces were also found in two residents’ yards in nearby towns, according to local reports.

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A large red line of a rocket moves through the sky

Source: SpaceX

NASA stated it was “unaware of any structural damage or injuries resulting from these findings.”

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Belonging to SpaceX

The debris originated from SpaceX’s Crew-7 mission, which launched on August 26, 2023, and returned after a six-month stint at the space station.

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SpaceX headquarter in California

Source: Wikimedia

Last month, another piece of suspected trunk debris from a different SpaceX mission was found in a farmer’s field in Saskatchewan, Canada.

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Not an Isolated Incident

An uncrewed SpaceX mission to deliver supplies to the space station also resulted in debris falling over Saudi Arabia.

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A rendering of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule in space.

Source: NASA/SpaceX/Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, debris from a Crew Dragon trunk landed in Colorado last year, with a similar incident occurring in 2022 in Australia.

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Devastating to Florida Home

In March, a 1.6-pound piece of metal space debris, not from a SpaceX vehicle, tore through a home in Naples, Florida.

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A metal object that had been used to mount International Space Station batteries on a cargo pallet struck a home in Naples, Florida, on March 8.

Source: NASA

This piece came from a cargo pallet intentionally released from the International Space Station.

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NASA Sued

The Florida family whose home was damaged is suing NASA, alleging emotional stress caused by the incident.

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NASA space debris with lawsuit papers and NASA logo overlaid

Source: Otero Family/CBS News; NASA

Jimi Russell, a NASA public affairs officer, stated that it “would not be appropriate for NASA to comment on a pending claim.”

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More Space Launches, More Risks

It is common for space agencies and companies to let defunct hardware burn up in the atmosphere, but occasionally, some pieces survive re-entry. 

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 on a launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2016.

Source: SpaceX/Wikimedia Commons

Although it is rare for space debris to land in populated areas, the recent incidents raise concerns about the growing risk as space launches increase.

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Crew Dragon Capsule Set to Bring Home Astronauts

A Crew Dragon capsule with its trunk section attached is currently parked at the International Space Station. 

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European Space Agency (EPA) astronaut Alexander Gerst, Expedition 41 flight engineer, uses a camera to make a photo of his helmet visor during a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) outside the International Space Station (ISS) October 7, 2017 in space.

Source: NASA via Getty Images

This spacecraft is expected to return to Earth with its crew later this summer. NASA plans to work with SpaceX to explore “additional solutions as we learn from the discovered debris.”

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Debris Displayed

The space debris chunk found by Clontz is now displayed at The Glamping Collective behind a glass case. Clontz mentioned that neither SpaceX nor NASA has asked to retrieve it yet.

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SpaceX debris found in North Carolina. Debris is on a grassy area with hills and blue sky in background

Source: The Glamping Collective

“Every time I go look at it, I think how cool it is,” he said

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Novelty of Space Debris

According to the worker who discovered the space debris from the SpaceX capsule, he claims it’s fascinating to think of the journey it made into space before landing close to his place of employment.

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A photograph of the Hubble Space Telescope

Source: Wikipedia

“To think that it launched from Florida, went to outer space, and came back down, and a piece of it flew off right over North Carolina is pretty cool.”

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Is Space Debris Dangerous

Now that we know how much debris is currently orbiting around our planet, it’s hard not to worry about the potential dangers of a large object passing through the atmosphere and reaching the ground. 

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A man pictured in a white gown as he lies in a hospital bed

Source: Freepik

In 1997, a woman from Oklahoma was hit with a piece of a metallic material that once formed part of a propellant tank on the Delta II rocket. However, the chances of being hit are relatively low. 

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The Chance of Being Hit By Space Debris

According to reports, the chances of any person in the world being hit by a piece of space debris are around one in 10,000. If you take yourself as the target, this increases to one in a trillion. 

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A young woman walks down a gravel path through trees

Source: Freepik

However, this all depends on the number of objects being launched into space, which varies depending on the season and year. 

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The Problems With Preparing for Space Debris

Several problems prohibit humans from successfully protecting themselves against falling space debris. The most obvious is that it’s difficult to pinpoint where it will land. 

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A photograph of a researcher pictured working at his desk

Source:

“It can be extremely challenging to predict where an object in an uncontrolled orbit will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere,” said one researcher, per the BBC

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Very Low Chance of Getting Hit By Space Debris

The chances of getting hit by space debris are so low that an individual is more than 65,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to get hit by a piece of rogue space trash.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft is launched on NASA's SpaceX Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts

Source: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images

DW News offered some reassuring advice, explaining, “You’re three times more likely to be hit by a meteorite than space debris, and how often does space rock land on the planet? So, statistically, you should be okay.”

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Nothing to Worry About

Despite all the worry, it’s good to remember that the vast majority of space debris will burn up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

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A slightly blurred photo of a woman holding her head with her hands.

Uday Mittal/Unsplash

However, at some point in the near future, space organizations may be forced to develop programs to reduce the amount of space trash floating around our planet before it becomes a serious ecological problem.

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