The Mysterious Case of Two Spheres Falling to Earth in Australia and Brazil

by Ian O'Neill on March 28, 2008

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Mysterious spheres falling from space in Australia and Brazil (credit: Reuters/Daniel Drehmer at Second Wave)
On the March 24th, a story hit the web from Brazil asking for help identifying a mysterious-looking sphere found in farmland. The black, shiny object appeared to be wrapped in fibrous material and it was hot to the touch. Immediately thoughts of extra-terrestrial origin came to mind…

Today, several news sources covered the discovery of a mysterious spherical object found in the Australian outback last year. The farmer who made the discovery has only just started to make enquiries into what the object actually is.

So are the two objects connected in some way? Are they indeed from outer space?

The answer is “yes”, and “yes”. But don’t go getting too excited, they’re not bits from a broken alien spacecraft.

The orb in Brazilian farmland (credit: Daniel Drehmer)

Before their origins are explained, a bit of background: The first story to be released was from Brazil on Monday. Just a small story on Daniel Drehmer’s blog, asking “a space geek from Digg” (Digg.com being the social bookmarking site) for help to identify this strange object found by Sebastião Marques da Costa who described the orb as being hot to the touch. Either it has been heated by the Sun, or it had just crashed to Earth. On seeing the object, it does make for good science fiction material. It’s a very strange looking thing, one meter in diameter, contrasting with the green countryside.

A COPV containing helium on board the Shuttle (credit: NASA)

I was so intrigued by the story, I kept an eye on the blog. The following day, the Second Wave reported that an answer had been found. Obviously the geeks on Digg had been paying attention and identified the object as a Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel (or COPV). Put very basically, it’s a high pressure container for inert gases. The space shuttle carries COPVs and it seems likely that these containers will be used for a variety of space missions. They are built with a carbon fibre or Kevlar overcoat to provide reinforcement against the vast pressure gradient between the inside and outside of the container.

If the COPVs are so reinforced, it seems reasonable that they may survive re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Australian mystery orb (credit: Reuters)

So what about our Australian farmer? Looking at the picture, the strange object in the Australian outback has some striking similarities to the Brazilian orb (only a lot more damaged).

Today many news sites picked up on the Australian find (well, last year’s find), and call me suspicious, but the timing couldn’t be better. The Australian farmer, James Stirton, who found the object made the surprising statement to the Reuters news agency:

I know a lot of about sheep and cattle but I don’t know much about satellites. But I would say it is a fuel cell off some stage of a rocket.”

That’s one very well informed guess. Perhaps he’s a Digg reader…?

Either way, it would be interesting to find out to what space mission these COPVs belonged to, as it appears they are highly efficient at not only storing fuels being flown into space, they also crash to Earth pretty much intact.

Sources: Reuters, The Second Wave

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Scott Houdek March 30, 2008 at 10:51 PM

Hmmmm, I hate to be funny, but, could be the old movie props from the movie “SPACEBALLS”, hey, I could be wrong!;););)

Kerrie March 30, 2008 at 11:35 PM

I was one of a group of people here in Australia who helped to make a tentative identification of the “mystery ball” for Jim Stirton late last year after he first found the piece of debris on his land. We identified it then as a pressure vessel possibly from an Atlas or Delta.

My understanding is that he later sought confirmation from The Aerospace Corporation’s Centre for Orbital and Re-entry Debris studies and they confirmed its probable identity to Mr. Stirton, as a helium bottle from a 1998 Atlas II launch, around March 21 or 22.

The timing of having the identification confirmed in late March may just be a co-incidence, but I would guess that the fuss about the Brazilian find prompted Mr. Stirton to contact the media about it, once he had an indea of what it was . Maybe, as a recently drought-stricken farmer, he was hoping someone would offer to buy it!

BTW, Australia is a very big, very empty landmass (think population of New York in a country the size of the US), so the likelihood of a piece of space debris hitting a population centre here is pretty low. Bits of space debris do turn up from time to time in the outback (Jim Stirton’s was the second piece I’d been asked about within a few months): sometimes the material is on the ground for a long time (even years) before it is discovered, since no-one has previously passed that way to find it.

Lee March 31, 2008 at 1:15 AM

So THAT’S where my PokeBalls went. Careful, I think the one in Australia is Jigglypuff, which means the Brazilian one’s Squirtle (by the way, Pres. Bush was recently told of a Brazilian soldier’s perishing in Afghanistan. He was visibly shaken but finally said: “Is a brazillion more or less than a million?”) (Rimshot, please.)

alphonso richardson March 31, 2008 at 3:27 AM

Just goes to show, we need to be keping tabs on all the junk we keep sending up & leaving there

B29 March 31, 2008 at 4:39 AM

Seeing that this is a science-oriented website, I don’t understand the need for the author to use silly phrases such as “…thoughts of extra-terrestrial origin come to mind…” and “Are they really from outer space?”. Sensationalism is not fitting here, I believe.

I liked the article – just, the choice of words irks me.

Lee: “brazillion?!” :p

TARZAN March 31, 2008 at 5:40 AM

shut up nerds

JANE March 31, 2008 at 1:00 PM

Tarzan this page is made for nerds. So what.

Pepe March 31, 2008 at 6:30 PM

Hello, my friends,

Plese access the article about crash objects in Brazil in the world:
http://www.viafanzine.jor.br/astronautica3

This text by prof. Ildefonso Souza, brazilian fisical, explain 10 pics of crashs objetcts and the fragment of research by Mr. Ian O’neil about the “spheres crashs”.

The original portuguese idiom, to translate, please, access Google Translation:
http://translate.google.com/translate_t

Best regards,

Pepe Chaves – spacial researcher
from Brazil
http://www.viafanzine.jor.br

Not the Central Intelligence Agency April 1, 2008 at 6:09 PM

They are nothing of consequence. They are most likely solidified swamp gas balls (very common) or also common wild giant black pumpkins.
Forget about them. Do not discuss them. Please send your names and addresses to project_outer_banks@no.org. Also include when you are most likely to be alone and vulnerable.
You never read this.

Agreeable ordinary private citizen April 1, 2008 at 6:17 PM

Yes, that makes perfect sense. These grow all over the undisclosed area I live in. We definately should stop speculating and accept that these are common objects. Yip, definately nothing out of the ordinary here. Just common wild giant black pumpkins and/or solidified swamp gas. Well that settles it. I can go about myy daily routine again. Whew. What a relief. I sure hate thinking. I love TV. We should all watch more of it.

Emerson April 2, 2008 at 1:37 AM

Bob Lynch Mar 28th

Good on you. Commonsense isn’t a lost art.

Pete April 2, 2008 at 11:18 AM

What’s the explanation for them being ‘hot to the touch”?

UK Dave April 9, 2008 at 7:34 AM

What kind of function do these things serve? Why is the helium vented? To lighten the craft or as a flame retardant?

Alan Ledbury April 13, 2008 at 10:11 AM

Hi UK Dave

They store helium gas under pressure,

The helium is piped into the fuel tanks and presurises them for 2 reasons.

1) the pressure forces the fuel out of the tanks, into the pumps and then the egines,

2) they make the tank stiff, think of a plastic cola bottle and how rigid it gets when you shake it up, then think how weak it gets when you vent it ( that means unscrewing the cap)

The tanks have to be strong enough to support the payload at the top of the stack
under accelleration, the helium actually supports the payload.

Why Helium ???, well it has to be inert, compressed air could feed a fire and cause the fuel tank to expload, compressed CO2 is inert but very heavy.

Why vented ???, as the ship breaks up on re-entry the pipework burns up and the helium just escapes, it not intentional

Hope this is clear

Cheers and beers, Alan

Agreeable ordinary private citizen April 29, 2008 at 5:29 PM

They are warm to the touch because wild pumpkins and/or solidified swamp gas are great insulators for solar heat. I saw that on T.V.

I can’t wait to watch more. Ooops…gotta go. The movie “Conspiracy Theory” is coming on in a few minutes.

Tom Haberthaler August 21, 2008 at 5:25 AM

Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that a very mysterious orb washed up onto the beach here near Charleston, SC some years back. It was metalic and a sphere but beyond that, nobody around here actually knows what it is or where it came from. Some of us thought it may have been an object from WWII but that’s all any of us had, just theories. Nobody knew with any certainty. It was just eventually hauled off to some police station I believe and forgotten about by most. An old saying, “Mankind is lost for lack of knowledge…”

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