The old adage “what goes up must come down” isn’t always true for space launches — usually we like to keep things “up” for an indefinite amount of time. But after a failed rocket launch, space hardware usually has a premature trip back to Earth, sometimes surviving fiery reentry.
On Friday, a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying a communications satellite failed only minutes after launch, yet another failure in a troubling trend for the nation’s space launch capabilities. On Sunday, Chinese media reported the recovery of space junk that has now been identified as pieces from that failed Proton rocket.
According an AFP report, space debris was found near Qiqihar city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, located on Russia’s far east border. Investigators associated with the China National Space Administration recovered “parts from a carrier rocket or a satellite” that “appeared to have fallen from the sky on Friday,” said the Chinese Xinhua news agency.
Photographs have been released of a damaged spherical object, which resembles a Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessel (COPV). COPVs are commonly used by spacecraft to store pressurized liquid fuel and are often constructed of steel or titanium and wrapped in Kevlar — the same material used for bulletproof vests. These objects are therefore very tough can can often survive the extreme heating of reentry.
These falling space orbs have, in the past, caused some excitement as to their extraterrestrial origin, but after expert analysis they are quickly identified as space junk.
Friday’s failed Proton rocket launch destroyed a sophisticated $205 million satellite that was destined to become Russia’s most powerful telecommunications satellite, supplying internet access to isolated regions. The Express-AM4P satellite was built by Airbus Group’s Astrium corporation.
Russia has experienced a string of high-profile failures in recent years and this is the sixth incident involving a Proton-M since 2010. The last Proton-M failure destroyed three Russian-made Glonass navigation satellites in July 2013 after the booster veered dramatically out of control seconds after launch and crashed, creating a huge fireball near the launch pad.
A string of failures involving the Proton and Soyuz launch vehicles have prompted an overhaul in the Russian space agency, culminating in the replacement of Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin in October 2013.