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How Did This Big Ball Of Space Junk Wind Up In Uruguay?

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The Payload Assist Motor of the Delta rocket upper stage (PAM-D) is almost freaky in its durability. In 2011, another chunk of would-be space junk survived re-entry, crashing as a recognizable sphere instead of burning up in the atmosphere.

I say "another" PAM-D rocket casing, because I already told you about the casing that crashed into the Australian desert and wasn't noticed for nearly two decades. At least it's not still in orbit crowding up near-Earth space with junk.


In March 2011, Uruguay collected some exotic litter. The Delta 2 rocket had launched in 2003 carrying Navstar 53 into position, before re-entering over the Pacific Ocean years later.

A farmer even witnessed the re-entry event itself, describing it to a local paper as, "Andaba en el campo a las once de la noche y cuando me venía veo un tren de fuego, una estrella grande y detrás de ella cuatro o cinco más. Venía desde el departamento de Salto y eran cuatro o cinco esferas. La tercera explotó y la última se desintegró." According to translation algorithms works out to something like he was heading out into the field at eleven that night, and saw a stream of fireball. The fireball was a main star with four or five smaller pieces dragging behind it, the third of which exploded. The third exploded, and the last one disintegrated. Shortly after, the ground shook and he heard a deafening bang. (Here's a better translation!)

The farmer and his father who found the casing originally hid it in their barn, afraid that if anyone found out they'd be forced to surrender it. After a bit too much gossip and friends posting photos, the secret was out.