Hours after the first test flight of SpaceX's Starship ended with the spacecraft and its Super Heavy booster tumbling until it was commanded to explode, possible debris from the colossal rocket began to wash up on the shores surrounding the company's Starbase launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Local county officials were quick to order temporary road and beach closures to aid in "anomaly cleanup efforts," but given that the vehicle was well over the Gulf of Mexico and reached an altitude of approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) before it broke apart on Thursday (April 20), the precautions only extended to a relatively small area of where fragments of the world's tallest and most powerful rocket could end up.
"Look what I found!" posted Joe Tegtmeyer to Twitter at 7:30 p.m. EDT (2330 GMT), about nine hours after the Starship launch, captioning photos of himself holding up what appeared to be roughly a half of one of the 18,000 hexagonal heat shield tiles that covered one side of the Starship. Had stage separation not failed, Starship may have used the tile and others like it to protect against the tremendous heat of reentry as it fell back through Earth's atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii.
"Not sure when it departed the ship, but I would suspect more will wash ashore over the next few days," wrote Tegtmeyer, who describes himself as "interested in all things space related, SpaceX." Tegtmeyer could not rule out, though, that the tile was from an earlier test. Although this was the first time Starship and Super Heavy had flown together, SpaceX has previously flown and lost Starship vehicles on "hops" as the company worked to perfect recovering the spacecraft.
Tegtmeyer was not the only person to find a possible piece of a Starship. Photos shared on social media showed that at least one other person had come across a smaller fragment of the black and white ceramic tiles.
For its part, SpaceX issued an advisory to the public, warning against attempting to handle or retrieve the debris directly. Instead, the company invites finds be reported to its hotline at 1-866-623-0234 or emailed to email@example.com.
"Teams are actively monitoring both message boxes and will ensure the notification is handled appropriately. We are unable to respond to every message received, but our teams will reach out as appropriate," SpaceX officials wrote. "If you have concerns about an immediate hazard, please contact your local law enforcement agency."
Though the Starship test flight was a privately funded activity, it was conducted under a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license asserting it was being undertaken with the oversight of the United States. As a party to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, protections are extended that any spacecraft components found anywhere on Earth (or in space) remain the property of the launch operator until such time that the entity explicitly relinquishes them.
As such, all of the Starship debris remains SpaceX's property, even if it is found on private property or in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tegtmeyer said he respected the rules regarding his find.
"I'm in contact with SpaceX and provided the geolocation of where I found it," he said. "They responded thanking me for the info."