Unidentified object on Australian beach may be part of Indian rocket launcher

Probably not aliens, maybe

The Australian Space Agency said on Monday it was making enquiries related to a mysterious cylindrical object that washed ashore on Western Australia's Jurien Bay.

The agency detailed that it was "working to confirm whether the object could be part of a foreign space launch vehicle that has washed up on shore, and liaising with global counterparts who may be able to provide information about the object."

It warned the local population against handling or moving the object. Residents of the area were the ones to find the object and report it to the police.

Western Australian (WA) Police reportedly determined the item wasn't a risk, after originally treating it as hazardous. WA Police also confirmed it "did not originate from a commercial aircraft," thereby dispelling speculation that it could be from 2014's missing flight MH370.

Multiple industry professionals and experts have determined the object could likely be a fuel cylinder from the third stage of India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This is not an unfounded conclusion – the item does look eerily similar to photos of the PSLV, which India has used since 1993.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) used the PSLV to launch its latest lunar mission, Chandrayaan-3, last Friday.

After the PSLV expels its spacecraft, its first three stages become debris that's typically not recovered. Its fourth stage is used as an orbital platform.

The third stage comes into play after the atmospheric phase of the launch, where it provides 250kn of thrust, burning 7.6 long tons of Hydroxyl-Terminated Poly Butadiene (HTPB) solid propellant, burnt for a few seconds shy of two minutes.

Safety data sheets do warn against human contact with HTPB, although most warnings are issued for high temperatures. Ecological dangers of HTPB are less understood.

"Uncontrolled reentry is not disposal but abandonment," said space environmentalist and astrodynamicist Moriba Jah. Jah also concluded the item is "likely from India's PSLV system."

The space environmentalist warned that such events will only become more frequent with even larger items – the size of a bus or car – eventually landing in populated areas.

This kind of potential space debris problem is not isolated to India alone and space missions have become more common globally. China, for instance, is notorious for ambiguous crash landings of its Long March 3B.

In June, state-sponsored media reported the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) had developed a parachute system to guide its rockets to a predetermined landing zone.

Here's hoping. ®

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