SpaceX Dropped Space Junk on My Neighbor’s Farm. Here’s What Happened Next

The e-mail arrived, like a bolt from blue, on the otherwise typical Thursday afternoon of May 9. The message was from a journalist, asking me, an astronomer, for an interview about a farmer who had reportedly found space junk while prepping his fields for springtime seeding, just an hour’s drive from my home in Saskatchewan. “Yeah, right,” I said to myself as I tapped out my affirmative reply. The odds are already long for any particular place on Earth to be struck by orbital debris—so the chances for it to happen practically in the backyard of someone like me who studies the issue felt astronomically low, simply too far-fetched to be true.

A quick check of my news feed proved me wrong. One of the top stories was about the space junk strike, and even included a photo of the farmer, Barry Sawchuk, standing next to what looked like the charred, battered hood of a semitruck covered with woven carbon fiber and a few slightly melted aluminum protrusions. My jaw dropped in shock: The object looked exactly like debris that fell in an Australian sheep field in 2022, which the U.S. aerospace company SpaceX later admitted was part of a cargo trunk for its Crew Dragon spacecraft. This “trunk” is actually the size of a small grain silo, and is ejected in orbit well before the spacecraft’s atmospheric reentry, to naturally and chaotically reenter on its own and, supposedly, burn up completely.

To confirm my hunch, I immediately e-mailed my collaborator Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, who maintains probably the best public database of launches, reentries and other space activities. McDowell responded within minutes, forwarding a graphic tracing the path of a SpaceX Crew Dragon trunk ejected by the Axiom 3 private astronaut mission that had reentered over the Canadian prairies on February 26, 2024. My hunch was confirmed.

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As an astronomer, I already had good reasons to worry about SpaceX. The company has been launching huge numbers of its Starlink internet broadband satellites since 2019; more than 6,000 are in orbit, and as many as 42,000 are planned. As Starlink grew—along with competing plans for other satellite “mega constellations”—my telescope data and my huge prairie sky filled with bright, easily visible satellites just as many astronomers (including myself) had warned. Beyond this disruptive light pollution, though, new research shows that atmospheric pollution is skyrocketing from the SpaceX-dominated dramatic increase in launches and reentries—with potentially disastrous global effects. The aluminum oxide produced by sublimating satellites in Earth’s upper atmosphere, it turns out, is a potent and lasting catalyst for chemical reactions similar to those that in the 20th century famously corroded a gaping hole in our planet’s delicate, radiation-blocking ozone layer.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to escape urban light pollution default to being bystanders to this sullying of the sky; we look up, feel overwhelmed, and look away. This latest situation, with the company’s activity showering my neighbors with dangerous debris, somehow felt more personal. So I decided to act, and to help hold SpaceX accountable.

I got Sawchuk’s phone number from the journalist who had contacted me, and the farmer took my call from the cab of his tractor as he was busily seeding. He was extremely annoyed that SpaceX was allowed to dump its orbital trash onto his farm, he said, and had assumed the best response was to tell his story in the news media. But the initial response was subdued; most journalists didn’t prioritize following up on a rural Saskatchewan farmer saying he found a piece of space junk. Sawchuk gave me permission to pass along his phone number to curious minds, with one proviso: “I won’t respond to texts while I’m driving the tractor!” I began brainstorming a list of every space law and orbital debris expert I could think of to ask for advice.

What on Earth is a Canadian citizen supposed do if they find potentially hazardous space garbage on their private property? How does one tell SpaceX, notorious for being unresponsive to journalist queries, a piece of their spacecraft fell on your farm? Who has to clean it up?

The answers, I found, are completely bizarre.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

You might be surprised to learn there is precious little in the way of “space law” to sort this out, other than the Outer Space Treaty (OST) and the Space Liability Convention, two agreements that were signed between many countries during the space race era of the late 1960s and early 1970s—a time when only national governments were capable of launching rockets into orbit. The treaties mandate that signatory governments have absolute liability for any damage or death caused by anything launched into orbit from their respective countries. In other words, anytime SpaceX launches a rocket, the U.S. government is responsible for any damage it causes in other countries.

So far, these treaties have only been fully tested once. In 1978 a Soviet satellite with a nuclear reactor on board crashed into northern Canada, spraying radioactive waste across a Florida-sized swath of land that Indigenous people have relied on for thousands of years. The U.S.S.R. paid Canada a small token compensation for the cursory cleanup effort that ensued, but the effects of that disaster linger to this day. Another precedent-setting scenario—damage claims from a Florida family whose home was recently struck by NASA-sourced space debris—is presently unfolding.

Sawchuk’s case was rather different from these, however, with pieces of a spacecraft built by an American private company landing on private property in Canada, without apparent damage. My first thought was to seek guidance from the Canadian Space Agency about holding SpaceX accountable, but my contacts there told me to just e-mail the company directly. Given that almost every news article about SpaceX notes the company’s unresponsiveness to requests for comment, I decided to try something else.

First I contacted various space law experts, expecting someone to respond with an itemized list of exactly what Sawchuk should do according to the OST. Instead, one of them asked “Do you think he’d take $5,000 for it?” After I finished laughing, I realized this space law expert had a point: this could be a great opportunity, offering a rare chance for independent scientists to study the trunk’s composition and learn more about the pollutants that transparency-averse SpaceX and others are incessantly pumping into Earth’s upper atmosphere. At least, I thought so at the time; any sort of “independent study” plan was actually prohibited by international law, because although the trunk fell on private property in Canada, according to the OST it needed to be returned to its country of origin.

The point was moot anyway after a representative of SpaceX called Sawchuk in mid-May to arrange plans for retrieving the company’s space junk. Sawchuk first demanded proof that the person was from SpaceX, the farmer later told me. Then, in what is perhaps the most delightfully stereotypical Canadian thing he could’ve done, Sawchuk asked them as compensation to donate money to a skating rink that’s under construction in the nearby town of Ituna. SpaceX’s representative wrote back offering several thousand dollars and agreeing to those terms in cordial legalese; Sawchuk would need to send them an official invoice “for collection and storage of debris pending recovery.” And that was that. I was happy at first: a company owned by the richest dude in the world probably should provide compensation to folks they drop potentially lethal garbage on. But I was disturbed when I later learned that by initiating contact with Sawchuk, SpaceX had circumvented the formal procedures dictated by prevailing space law.

According to the OST and the Space Liability Convention, what should’ve happened is this: after finding SpaceX’s space junk, Sawchuk somehow should have contacted Global Affairs Canada, which should have contacted the U.S. State Department, which should have contacted SpaceX to arrange retrieval of the company’s property in coordination with the Canadian government. Instead it seems SpaceX unilaterally contacted Sawchuk after learning of the situation via early media coverage.

A moment’s thought reveals the troubling precedent this sets. Apparently, if a Canadian comes too close for comfort to being struck by a private company’s hazardous space junk, they are supposed to just wait until the company tracks them down and then meekly surrender the pieces of garbage that could have killed them. I called my MP, who never responded to my query, and the Canadian Space Agency later released a statement saying that local law enforcement should be notified—implying that small-town RCMP officers are trained in dealing with potentially hazardous space debris. (Spoiler alert: they are not.) I even tried calling the “Saskatchewan Turn In Poachers and Polluters Hotline” to see if a littering fine could be applied, to no avail; after all, there had been no damage, and why would a Saskatchewan rural municipality want to go out of its way to take on SpaceX in Canadian small-claims court?

If there had been damage, the U.S. government would have been obligated by the OST to compensate the Canadian government. But because SpaceX is a private company, and no damage occurred, any compensation is voluntary.

Under a Falling Sky

I was away at a science conference in Toronto (ironically giving an invited talk on the proliferation of satellites in orbit) when SpaceX and Sawchuk struck a deal, but I wanted to see the Crew Dragon trunk with my own eyes before the company showed up to take it away. At Sawchuk’s invitation I made the hour’s drive to his farm the day after I returned home, traveling through the neon-green prairie of mid-May Saskatchewan to meet him and his wife in their tidy farmyard bordered by huge, silver grain bins. Sawchuk is a life-long farmer in his 60s who loves his work so much he apparently hasn’t even started to consider retirement. The space junk pieces (by this time they had found two) were housed in his clean and organized equipment shed. Although I already knew their size and weight, I wasn’t prepared for how large they proved to be in person.

Three different views of a large piece of debris from a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle

Three different views of debris from a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle. This section of the Crew Dragon’s trunk fell on Barry Sawchuk’s farmland in Saskatchewan on February 26, 2024, and is but one of several large pieces discovered from the uncontrolled reentry event.

By this time McDowell and others had reconstructed how exactly those pieces came to be there. After being cast adrift on February 9, the cargo trunk spent more than two weeks in a decaying orbit. Reaching about 50 miles altitude in the early morning hours of February 26, it began to burn as it plowed at some 17,000 miles per hour through the thickening air. Anyone near Calgary looking up at the right moment could have briefly seen a very bright, messy shooting star as the heavy cylinder melted and broke into pieces. The trunk’s outer layers of woven carbon fiber billowed and unraveled as it fell, likely insulating and slowing the plummeting pieces so abruptly that friction from the atmosphere failed to destroy them as SpaceX engineers had planned.

Objects breaking apart high overhead often leave debris trails spanning hundreds of miles; the hefty fragments in Sawchuk’s equipment shed were a testament to many smaller ones undoubtedly generated by this event that are yet to be discovered. People will be finding additional pieces for years, if not decades.

As Sawchuk and his neighbors awaited SpaceX’s trash pickup, even more recoverable debris emerged, but in the form of fragments of an entirely different Crew Dragon trunk that reentered elsewhere on May 21. Pieces were found in North Carolina, including one that allegedly bounced off someone’s house. By McDowell’s authoritative, ever-growing tally, almost every single Crew Dragon trunk that has reentered over anywhere that is not ocean, deep jungle or desert, has generated significant debris on the ground. These “fully demisable” spacecraft components are no such thing, and the implications are terrifying.

SpaceX’s plan for the Starlink mega constellation, for example, is that each Ford F150-sized satellite will operate for five years before being deorbited to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, clearing the way for the launch of new replacements. SpaceX has provisional permission from the Federal Communications Commission (yes, somehow this is the FCC’s regulatory jurisdiction) to launch and operate 42,000 Starlink satellites. Assuming each one reaches orbit and lasts five years, on average, SpaceX will be burning up nearly one satellite per hour. If, like the Crew Dragon trunks, some might scatter large pieces across the Earth after failing to fully burn up, the prospect of human fatalities cannot be easily dismissed. Even if all Starlinks fully burn as planned, the repercussions on our planet’s atmosphere and climate from this single mega constellation project could be severe—and Starlink is but the first of many.

We simply cannot have tens of thousands of satellites in orbit without consequences; it’s high time to stop pretending otherwise.

Many Donuts, but Few Answers

Sawchuk gave me a call when SpaceX finally notified him of the recovery team’s planned arrival on June 11; he’d be happy to host me and a few members of the press to watch the pickup, he said, “to keep SpaceX honest.” Naturally, I relayed his invitation to some of the local and national journalists who had interviewed me for their coverage, and several eagerly accepted. The stage was set for a space-junk media circus in the middle of rural Saskatchewan.

When the fateful day arrived, I pulled into Sawchuk’s farmyard and parked just behind a CBC news crew. I’d brought boxes of donuts for the scrum of farmers, family members and journalists milling around the equipment shed, and we all excitedly speculated on whether a U-Haul truck seen on the side of the muddy dirt road we’d all just navigated was the SpaceX team. By then the space-junk haul had grown to five very large pieces—the two Sawchuk had originally found, plus one apiece that each of his two sons found on their plots, and finally from a neighbor a frighteningly huge spearlike shard that was about nine feet tall and weighed 80 pounds. There were about 250 pounds of space debris in total, sitting there in the equipment shed.

The exchange was as sudden as it was awkward. The suspicious U-Haul arrived, then two very nervous-looking young men emerged and somewhat sheepishly approached the awaiting throng. I had sincerely hoped they’d be chatty, but they said very little, not even admitting they were engineers from SpaceX until the demands for identification from the surrounding pack of camera-and-mic-toting journalists became too much to bear. Aside from that, the pair stayed mostly silent, avoiding eye contact and offering only tight-lipped smiles in response to the ceaseless barrage of questions as they donned gloves and loaded the debris, piece by piece, into the truck.

Once they were done loading, I saw a possible opening, and walked over to awkwardly offer them donuts—which, with equal awkwardness, they wordlessly declined. At this point, it was clear the SpaceX employees would rather be anywhere on Earth but there and were obviously trying to escape into a side room with Sawchuk to finalize the exchange away from the reporters. I quickly lobbed my last-ditch questions, hoping for some response. “How much do these trunks weigh? That information isn’t public, you know!” No answer other than twin forced smiles. I tried again, talking to their backs as they walked away from the group. Were they worried, I wondered, about taking their cargo across the border? “After all,” I added, “the U.S. government classifies spacecraft parts as munitions.” One of them glanced nervously at the U-Haul but said nothing before both disappeared into the side room to talk behind closed doors with Sawchuk.

Well, I tried.

After that uneventful private chat, the pair hopped back in the U-Haul and drove off, and the assembled media gradually packed up and left too, some taking donuts for the road.

Don’t Look Up

One might think this chapter of the still-unfolding greater story is now over. But I’m not so sure. Recalling the day’s events, I’m not sure if what happened was 100 percent legal. I’m still not sure what Canadians are supposed to do if they find American space junk on their property. For that matter, I’m not sure what Americans are supposed to do, either.

In the days since, I’ve found myself staring at a map I made of where several pieces were found along about 30 miles of the trunk’s projected ground track, thinking about all the other fallen fragments that may yet be found strewn across that sparsely populated stretch of prairie farmland—and the infuriating uncertainty about what everyday people are expected to do with them. I’m reminded of the work-safety adage that, for every death, there are multiple near misses; if you fail to correct the problem after near misses, there will be deaths. This space-junk impact in rural Saskatchewan was a near miss, yet no one seems too worried about correcting it. If those pieces had fallen in the city of Regina, or in New York City, or on a midair passenger jet, easily dozens of people could have been killed or seriously injured.

To SpaceX’s credit, the company is now working with NASA to study ways to mitigate the problem posed by Crew Dragon trunks. Ejecting them after the crew capsule’s deorbit burn, rather than before, might allow the trunks’ subsequent uncontrolled reentries to be better targeted for remote regions of the globe. Even so, that more space junk will fall on us in the coming months and years is a matter of mathematical certainty. As of this writing there are 10,057 active satellites in orbit; well more than half of those are SpaceX’s Starlink spacecraft. There are tens of thousands of pieces of space debris large enough to track, and orders of magnitude more that are too small for our current surveillance to see. Most of this material, satellites and debris alike, is in low-Earth orbit, and without intervention will eventually burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in years, decades or centuries depending on altitude. We’re left hoping that hazardous pieces won’t reach the ground, that all those tons of vaporized aerospace-grade metal won’t further erode our planet’s protective ozone layer, that the sky will not fall.

Hope is not enough. SpaceX and other companies, as well as governments, are producing space debris that could very easily kill people. Countries need to enforce the rules that already exist, and regulations need to be updated to account for the unprecedented numbers of launches and reentries now occurring.

The hundreds of pounds of space debris that fell near my home were a clear warning. To avoid disaster, the nations of the world must heed it, and catch up with the reality of today’s commercialization of orbit before it’s too late.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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