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

Satellites

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

28 Mar , 2008 by

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

By  
[Follow me on Twitter (@astroengine)] [Check out my space blog: Astroengine.com] [Check out my radio show: Astroengine Live!] 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!


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Neila
Guest
Neila
March 29, 2008 2:40 AM

Welcome to Oz. smile

Damon Hill
Guest
Damon Hill
March 28, 2008 9:43 PM

The sky IS falling! These may indeed be helium tanks off Centaur or Delta IV upper stages. They’d be light once they vented and separated from the stage during reentry, and would quickly deaccelerate so they’d have a better chance of surviving re-entry heat.

Better be careful though; hypergolic propellant tanks might be of similar design and the contents will be extremely hazardous. I believe some of Columbia’s propellant tanks survived more or less intact.

LLDIAZ
Guest
LLDIAZ
March 29, 2008 6:45 AM

those are alien droppings

Brian Sheen
Member
March 29, 2008 1:51 AM

Hi Damon,

Helium tanks will not become lighter when vented unless air is kept out of the tank. Air being heavier than helium. A vacuum is lighter than either – excuse the bad grammer.

Hypergolic propellant could be aniline and nitric acid – hazardous indeed. For those new to rocket fuel try Googling hypergollic fuel most informative. Thanks for comment.

Brian Sheen
Member
March 29, 2008 1:54 AM

NB just seen a spelling error ;-

hypergolic is correct not hypergollic.

AstroAlan
Member
AstroAlan
March 29, 2008 2:17 AM

Hi Brian

Actually Helium is heavier than Air, at least helium at high pressure is heavier than air at atmospheric pressure.

The helium in the tank at take off would be at many hundreds of atmospheres but after venting during re-entry would be at the edge of space and an almost a perfect vacuum.

Incidentally the Aussie farmer probably remembers skylab crashing in Oz and scattering half a dozen similar spheres all over the outback.

Cheers, Alan

Luke
Guest
Luke
March 29, 2008 7:14 AM

Dear Y’all

Bollocks?

they’re a pair of balls.

But don’t quote me on that.

Luke. (crashes and burns)

rpsms
Member
rpsms
March 29, 2008 7:47 AM

He may know more about sheep and cattle than satelites but also knows more about the *internet* than satelites.

He did some research and found some photos of a booster stage that had similar tanks attached to it.

Jastev
Guest
Jastev
March 29, 2008 7:57 AM

What about the populated community getting hit by these.
That’s all we need is to have people killed by falling object s out of the sky.

Has NASA ever considerd these things hitting around dense areas of population?

Dang It
Guest
Dang It
March 29, 2008 8:21 AM

Dang it. I waz sur’ it wuz a UFO.

gregzsidisin
Member
gregzsidisin
March 29, 2008 9:09 AM

When the shuttle Columbia broke up in 2003, I remember seeing that at least one such pressure vessel survived reentry. It’s not surprising to see similar tanks from a vehicle. It’d be interesting to see someone back-track this to a reentering satellite or stage (US or otherwise). Presumably, it’s from a satellite or top stage – launches are usually planned so lower stages fall into the ocean.

At the risk of starting a rumor: any chance these could be from USA 193 / NROL-21, the spysat the US destroyed with a sea-launched missile recently?

Wayne Hally
Guest
Wayne Hally
March 29, 2008 10:15 AM

I wonder if might be pices of the shot down USA 193?

Bob Lynch
Guest
Bob Lynch
March 29, 2008 10:45 AM
Folks, lets get some of the science straight here, could we? The word hypergolic doesn’t imply dangerous itself, no more than ‘hydrogen’ implies bomb. Realistically, these spherical high pressure cells vented every last gram of their contents to space and the upper atmosphere during reentry, and even supposing not … then while perched in the middle of the fields where they lay. Hypergolic MIXTURES must by their nature be very volatile and kept very separate until needed. Hypergolic COMPOUNDS are not engineered into spacecraft, as they have the tendency to spontaneously detonate. Next up, the silly worry about whether someone would get hurt by one of these things hurling themselves into a city. 99.99% of this planet is… Read more »
blitzio
Guest
blitzio
March 29, 2008 11:03 AM

Could probably be pieces of the US satellite shot down on Feb 21, the Pentagon informed the public to expect the pieces to start coming down right about this time.

quasidog
Guest
quasidog
March 29, 2008 1:41 PM

” “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…?”

? Maybe he just used deductive reasoning? Just because he is an Aussie farmer, doesn’t mean he is stupid.

sofista
Member
March 29, 2008 5:27 PM

El 24 de marzo una noticia golpeó a la Red desde Brasil: se pedía ayuda para identificar una esfera de aspecto misterioso encontrada en el terreno de una granja. […] Fuente: Ian O’Neill en Universe Today.

giovanni
Guest
giovanni
March 29, 2008 11:19 PM

has vanyone wondered as to what would happen if one of those thanks fell onto a big city? it would appear that the americans went to the trouble of shooting down a satelite recently just to destroy what appeared to have been a similar thank

Sanjeev Narula
Guest
Sanjeev Narula
March 30, 2008 12:15 AM

As we know there are piles of reasons to believe the existence of alien life, such unidentified things should not surprise us. We must wait for the day when we are face to face with them.

wpDiscuz