India’s rockets dazzle Aussie stargazers… and beachgoers

Following the successful launch of India’s Chandrayaan-3 rocket on Friday, Australians were treated to the sudden appearance of the vehicle’s journey toward space, which created excitement as the rocket sped over the eastern seaboard of Australia and could be seen for a long period as a bright light.

That wasn’t the only excitement.

On Saturday evening local time, West Australians living in Green Head, about 250km north-west of Perth, were left scratching their heads when a large copper-coloured cylinder beached on their shore.

The object, currently under guard by WA Police, will be investigated by state and federal agencies to determine its origin. According to a statement, the object is being treated as hazardous and authorities are recommending people in the area to keep away.

By Sunday morning, internet sleuths had narrowed a potential source to the third stage of an Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) medium rocket.

Approximately 2.5m tank like object. Appears to be a lid on top. Cracked to the bottom. Small barnicles growing to exterior. Made of metal with what appears to be a wood type material on the top.
by u/General_Armadillo_72 in whatisthisthing

To casual pundits, this might marry neatly with the news that India launched a rocket just days before, but the level of barnacle growth visible on one side of the object is a giveaway this object has been waterborne for some time.

Pslv-c45 third and fourth stages at stage preparation facility.
PSLV-C45 third and fourth stages at stage preparation facility. Credit: Indian Space Research Organisation

Dr Paola Magni is a forensic scientist at Murdoch University. Among her areas of interest is aquatic forensics, particularly studying the time it takes for marine life to colonise objects.

While this primarily applies to crime scene study, she says there are some obvious signs on the side of the possible rocket body.

“What we can see from the pictures is, good colonisation – a large colonisation – of gooseneck barnacles,” Magni tells Cosmos.

Gooseneck barnacles are invertebrates crustaceans belonging to the subclass Cirripedia, known for clinging to hard, rigid surfaces – from rocks to the hulls of ships. They tend to occupy the first few metres of surface ocean, which Magni says indicates the mystery object was floating for most of its time in the ocean.

Paola time of death
Dr Paola A. Magni. Credit: Supplied.

“We can also that, even if the picture was taken… a few metres away, you can see these gooseneck barnacles are already pretty big, so they’re already [at their] adult part of life. To become an adult, it takes a few weeks.”

The most recent PSLV launch occurred in April, so if authorities do match this debris to the rocket class, it may have been ocean-bound for about three months.

What are the odds you’ll get hit by falling space junk?

Meanwhile, while the Indian Space Research Organisation might be getting an express return of second-hand rocket body from Western Australia, ISRO’s more immediate interest will be on the progress of its Chandrayaan-3 mission, due to arrive at the Moon in late August.

If Chandrayaan-3 successfully sets its rover on the lunar surface, it will make India just the fourth nation to ‘soft land’ on the Moon.

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