SpaceX and the search for Starship debris


The first flight of SpaceX‘s Starship ended with the spacecraft and its booster exploding (RUD) at an altitude of about 40km. Within hours, rocket debris began falling onto the surrounding coastline of the company’s launch facility, Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX itself is urging the search and reporting of Starship debris to all interested citizens.

Local county officials rushed to order the temporary closure of roads and beaches to assist with “debris cleanup efforts”. However, since the vehicle was well beyond the Gulf of Mexico, precautions only extended to a relatively small debris drop zone.

Recovery of the First Debris

“Look what I found!” Joe Tegtmeyer posted on Twitter (ref.) at 7:30 p.m. EDT, about nine hours after the spacecraft launch. The photo shows him with what appears to be half of one of the 18,000 hexagonal tiles from the heat shield that covered one side of the spacecraft’s second stage. If the stage separation had not failed, Starship would have used the tiles to protect itself from the heat of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii.

“I’m not sure when it left Starship, but I suspect there will be more washing up in the coming days” Tegtmeyer wrote. However, the man cannot exclude the possibility that the tile came from a previous test. Despite being the first time Starship and Super Heavy flew together, SpaceX has already had Starship vehicles destroyed.

Tegtmeyer was not the only person to find a possible piece of a spacecraft. 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.

SpaceX’s Warning

For its part, the space company has issued a public notice, warning not to attempt to handle or directly recover any found pieces. Instead, SpaceX invites the search for Starship debris and promptly reporting the discovery through its contacts.

“Teams are actively monitoring both message windows and will ensure notification is appropriately managed. We may not be able to respond to every message received, but we will do our best to reach out appropriately” SpaceX officials wrote. “If you have concerns about an immediate danger, please contact local law enforcement”.

While the Starship test flight was privately funded, it was conducted under a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stating that it was undertaken under the supervision of the United States. As part of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, any component of a spacecraft found anywhere on Earth or in space remains the property of the launch operator until the entity explicitly relinquishes them. Therefore, all spacecraft debris remains the property of SpaceX, even if found on private property or in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sofia Bianchi

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