The failed deorbiting of a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage late last month produced a spectacular light show over the Pacific Northwest, but the incident resulted in a large part of the rocket crashing onto a farmer’s field.
The second stage was supposed to burn up over the Pacific Ocean, far away from populated areas, but a failed deorbit burn resulted in an uncontrolled reentry on March 26, 2021.
Dramatic videos taken from the ground showed bits of glowing debris streaking across the sky around 9:00 p.m. local time, as the upper rocket component burned and disintegrated over the west coast of the United States.
The failed deorbit occurred around three weeks after the launch of the rocket, in which a Falcon 9 successfully deposited 60 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. The first stage managed to land on a drone ship shortly after launch from Kennedy Space Center on March 4.
SpaceX has been weirdly silent about the whole thing. The Tri-City Herald now reports that a charred piece of the second stage crashed onto a farmer’s field in Washington state. The remnant appears to be a composite overwrapped pressure vessel, or COPV, which is designed to carry fluids, such as super-cold helium, under pressure.
Kyle Foreman from the Grant County Sheriff’s Office told the Tri-City Herald that the tank left a 4-inch dent in the ground. SpaceX, after being contacted by sheriff office deputies, arrived on the scene to collect its garbage.
“SpaceX recovered a Composite-Overwrapped Pressure Vessel from last week’s Falcon 9 re-entry,” tweeted the Grant County Sheriff. “It was found on private property in southwest Grant County this week. Media and treasure hunters: we are not disclosing specifics.”
To which sheriff’s office added: “The property owner simply wants to be left alone.”
As to what went wrong during the deorbit, “there was not enough propellant after this launch to ignite the Merlin engine and complete the burn,” so the “propellant was vented into space,” resulting in the “uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere,” Eric Berger reported in Ars Technica.
A similar event occurred in 2014, when an apparent COPV from a Falcon 9 landed in Brazil. It’s fortunate that no one has ever been hurt in these incidents, which thankfully are rare. To date, SpaceX has completed 111 launches of the Falcon 9, including 71 landings of the first stage and 54 missions involving reflown rockets.