Space debris from SpaceX Dragon capsule crashed in the North Carolina mountains. I had to go see it (video)

Spaceflight doesn't typically come to mind when one thinks of North Carolina's serene, verdant mountains.

It's true that, in the early 1960s, NASA built the (now-defunct) Rosman Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Facility among the rolling hills of Appalachia to track Soviet satellites and relay communications for the Gemini and Apollo programs. And, of course, there are a few pockets of dark skies above Western North Carolina that allow for decent satellite spotting and skywatching.

But when it comes to the contemporary private spaceflight boom, these lush mountains are about as far removed as one can get from the bustling spaceports of Florida's Space Coast. That's why it was such a shock to discover a large chunk of space debris had been identified near Canton, NC — just outside of the city of Asheville, where I live.

I had to go see it for myself.

Related: Junk from a SpaceX Dragon 'trunk' may have crashed into a Canadian farmer's field (photos)

A piece of space debris suspected to be from the reentry of part of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which brought the Crew-7 astronaut mission home from the International Space Station. (Image credit: Future/Brett Tingley)

On May 22, groundskeeper Justin Clontz and his father were performing maintenance on a trail at the scenic Glamping Collective, a 160-acre luxury camping property offering private dome-style cabins on a mountaintop with panoramic views of the surrounding Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. 

Coming around a bend in the trail that day, Clontz and his father stumbled upon an odd piece of junk lying on the ground, not far from the path at all. Roughly 3 feet by 3 feet (1 meter by 1 meter), the debris consisted of shredded carbon fiber composite and scorched metal, with exposed metal bolts and plates poking out of it. It had a faint smell, similar to ozone.

A piece of possible space debris at the head of the trail on which it was found. (Image credit: Future/Brett Tingley)

"It landed directly in the middle of the trail," Clontz told Space.com. "It was just wild. It was crazy-looking. I really didn't know what to think."

There was no damage to surrounding trees or grass, Clontz said. It was as if someone had placed the debris right where it could be found, on a peaceful trail through the Pisgah National Forest. 

Clontz and other employees of the Glamping Collective initially thought the debris might be from a military aircraft. "I didn't know if we should be touching it," Clontz added.

Soon, scientists would weigh in.

a large black piece of fiberglass covered in metal bolts and plates lies on the ground beside a trail leading into a forest. mountains can be seen rolling in the distance

A piece of space debris suspected to be from the reentry of part of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which brought the Crew-7 astronaut mission home from the International Space Station. (Image credit: Future/Brett Tingley)

As it turned out, the piece of debris likely came from the reentry of the SpaceX Crew-7 mission to the International Space Station, which returned to Earth on March 12, 2024, according to astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "This definitely looks consistent with being a bit of the Crew-7 Dragon's trunk which reentered on a path right over this location on Tuesday," McDowell wrote on X after news of the debris began circulating.

The astrophysicist also posted a map tracking the reentry path of the piece of Crew-7's trunk suspected to be responsible for the debris, which shows the spacecraft hardware passing directly over Canton, NC — right where Clontz found the specimen (and, unsettlingly, also almost directly over my house).

The "trunk," as SpaceX refers to it, is the unpressurized tail section of the company's Dragon spacecraft, what other aerospace manufacturers would call a service module. This section carries cargo or small satellites, is fitted with solar panels that power Dragon when the vessel is in flight or docked to the ISS, and has fins for aerodynamic control during emergency aborts. 

While Dragon capsules make their way back to Earth safely in controlled descents that are ultimately slowed by parachutes, the spacecraft's "trunk remains attached to Dragon until shortly before reentry into Earth's atmosphere," SpaceX writes on its website, after which it is jettisoned.

Further, it appears that, not only can these trunks remain in orbit for weeks longer than their host capsules, but large pieces of them can also remain intact after their fiery reentries into Earth's atmosphere.

The piece of space debris suspected to be from the reentry of a part of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. (Image credit: Future/Brett Tingley)

"The discovery of SpaceX Dragon trunk debris from the Crew-7 mission in North Carolina, following debris from the Ax-3 trunk in Saskatchewan and from the Crew-1 trunk in Australia, makes it clear that the materials from the trunk regularly survive reentry in large chunks," McDowell wrote on X in May in reference to two other similar-looking pieces of debris found in Saskatchewan, Canada in May 2024 and in the Australian outback in August 2022. 

SpaceX ultimately sent a team to investigate the Australian debris fall, a senior director of SpaceX's human spaceflight program said following that event.

But SpaceX has not yet reached out to the Glamping Collective about the purported debris, a manager at the site told Space.com.

A mountaintop view at the Glamping Collective in Canton, NC, not far from where a suspected piece of SpaceX spacecraft debris was found on May 22, 2024. (Image credit: Future/Brett Tingley)

Despite how worrying these discoveries can seem, there's no need to panic. According to the Aerospace Corporation, the chances of being struck and hurt by falling space debris are less than a one in one trillion, far less than the risk of being struck by lightning or even being bitten by a shark.

Clontz recognizes how rare the discovery is, and said finding the debris doesn't make him worry about any other pieces of space junk falling near him. "I have peeked up in the sky a few times today," he said, laughing. "But it doesn't scare me. I mean, how many planes fly over every day? How many satellites are up there in orbit?"

The Glamping Collective plans to build a display case for the debris along the trail where it was found.

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Brett Tingley
Managing Editor, Space.com

Brett is curious about emerging aerospace technologies, alternative launch concepts, military space developments and uncrewed aircraft systems. Brett's work has appeared on Scientific American, The War Zone, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett enjoys skywatching throughout the dark skies of the Appalachian mountains.

  • skynr13
    The chances of this hitting anyone may be 1 in a trillion, But Mr. Musk should still address the problem as with every flight there is a possibility of someone getting hurt.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    Checking on that "one in a trillion" probability:

    That piece of junk is about 1 square meter.

    Earth's surface area is 5.1 x10^8 Km^2 = 5.1 x 10^14 m^2

    There are about 8 x 10^9 people on Earth.

    So, the probability that some person will be in a particular square meter is (8 x 10^9) / (5.1 x 10^14) = 1.6 x 10^-5. So, about 1 in one hundred thousand. That is per launch of a dragon capsule.

    So, the probability that somebody will get hit is not nearly as low as "one in a trillion".

    The probability stated in the article is more like the probability that a specific person will get hit, which is more like 1 m^2 / (5.1 x 10^14 m^2 ) = 2.0 x 10^15. So, that is still "two in a trillion", and again, that is per launch of a dragon capsule.

    What we really need to do is add up all of the launches that cause some junk to eventually hit the earth's surface, and take into account that the Chinese are having some much larger pieces land from their Long March rockets, to get a probability per year that somebody is going to get hit by a piece of junk falling out of orbit.

    We also need to take into account that most of the orbits that are dropping space junk are not polar, so the junk will land in latitudes pretty far removed from the poles, in the latitudes where most people live, so the more accurate probabilities will be higher than the averages I calculated assuming even distributions of falling junk and people across the surface of the Earth.

    Yes, we have other risks which are higher. But, if somebody is negligent about putting others at risk, and that causes a death, that is "negligent homicide", which is a felony. It is unavoidable risk that is considered an accident.



    .
    Reply
  • skynr13
    Unclear Engineer said:
    Checking on that "one in a trillion" probability:

    That piece of junk is about 1 square meter.

    Earth's surface area is 5.1 x10^8 Km^2 = 5.1 x 10^14 m^2

    There are about 8 x 10^9 people on Earth.

    So, the probability that some person will be in a particular square meter is (8 x 10^9) / (5.1 x 10^14) = 1.6 x 10^-5. So, about 1 in one hundred thousand. That is per launch of a dragon capsule.

    So, the probability that somebody will get hit is not nearly as low as "one in a trillion".

    The probability stated in the article is more like the probability that a specific person will get hit, which is more like 1 m^2 / (5.1 x 10^14 m^2 ) = 2.0 x 10^15. So, that is still "two in a trillion", and again, that is per launch of a dragon capsule.

    What we really need to do is add up all of the launches that cause some junk to eventually hit the earth's surface, and take into account that the Chinese are having some much larger pieces land from their Long March rockets, to get a probability per year that somebody is going to get hit by a piece of junk falling out of orbit.

    We also need to take into account that most of the orbits that are dropping space junk are not polar, so the junk will land in latitudes pretty far removed from the poles, in the latitudes where most people live, so the more accurate probabilities will be higher than the averages I calculated assuming even distributions of falling junk and people across the surface of the Earth.

    Yes, we have other risks which are higher. But, if somebody is negligent about putting others at risk, and that causes a death, that is "negligent homicide", which is a felony. It is unavoidable risk that is considered an accident.



    .
    And that piece of the battery pallet that was eject from the ISS and hit the home in Florida and just missed the guy's son is that one in a trillion now pretty much used up. So maybe we now go on to your calculation of 2 in a trillion?
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    That's not the way probability works. And it is nothing like the implication of what I posted.

    To sum it up, again:

    "What we really need to do is add up all of the launches that cause some junk to eventually hit the earth's surface, . . . "

    and

    ". . . if somebody is negligent about putting others at risk, and that causes a death, that is 'negligent homicide', which is a felony."

    The calculations that I presented show where the "one in a trillion" number comes from and also that it is not the relevant number for the probability that falling space junk will hit somebody, which is 8 billion times higher, and applies to only one dragon capsule launch. not the sum of all risk from the hundreds of launches per year we are now doing.

    Unless preventative actions are taken, commercialization of space will lead to much higher risk per year, and somebody is very likely to get hit with something. It would not take a trillion years for that to happen,
    Reply
  • skynr13
    Unclear Engineer said:
    That's not the way probability works. And it is nothing like the implication of what I posted.

    To sum it up, again:

    "What we really need to do is add up all of the launches that cause some junk to eventually hit the earth's surface, . . . "

    and

    ". . . if somebody is negligent about putting others at risk, and that causes a death, that is 'negligent homicide', which is a felony."

    The calculations that I presented show where the "one in a trillion" number comes from and also that it is not the relevant number for the probability that falling space junk will hit somebody, which is 8 billion times higher, and applies to only one dragon capsule launch. not the sum of all risk from the hundreds of launches per year we are now doing.

    Unless preventative actions are taken, commercialization of space will lead to much higher risk per year, and somebody is very likely to get hit with something. It would not take a trillion years for that to happen,
    I totally agree, and considering the guy in Florida was almost hit by space junk from the ISS, it seems that much more probable by at least one.
    Reply