April 20, 2024


Three years ago, NASA tossed a massive pallet of old batteries from the International Space Station (ISS), hoping that it would burn up through Earth’s atmosphere. A few weeks ago, the space station’s trash finally did reenter through the atmosphere, but a piece of it may have survived and smashed through a house in Florida.

On March 8, a two-pound cylindrical-shaped object crashed through the roof of a family home in Naples, Florida, creating a hole in the ceiling and the floor. The incident coincided with the reentry of the ISS pallet, which plummeted through the atmosphere on the same day over the Gulf of Mexico, ultimately heading toward southwest Florida.

“I was shaking. I was completely in disbelief. What are the chances of something landing on my house with such force to cause so much damage,” Alejandro Otero, the owner of the house, told Wink News. “I’m super grateful that nobody got hurt.” Otero reached out to NASA and began eliciting the help of others online to help him trace the origins of the object from the sky.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist who has looked at the data of thousands of atmospheric reentries, including the ISS pallet, was contacted by Otero. “Often we get reentries like this and someone from several-hundred miles away saying, ‘I found this weird thing in my backyard that may have fallen today or may have been there for a week,’ and I roll my eyes and move on,” McDowell told Gizmodo. “But this came through the roof, and it came through the roof at the right time in a place that was consistent with it being [a piece of the pallet] so that was promising enough to follow up on.”

McDowell helped Otero get in touch with the Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit research and development center. Afterwards, NASA collected the debris from Otero and is currently analyzing it to determine its origin. The time and location is consistent with the space station’s pallet of old batteries, but its origin and nature have yet to be confirmed.

In March 2021, a 2.9-ton pallet containing nine batteries was tossed into space by the ISS’s Canadarm2 robotic arm, where it slowly spiraled towards Earth ahead of an uncontrolled reentry. The pallet is the largest object ever thrown out from the ISS, but NASA had hoped that the entire thing would burn up upon reentry or that at least the debris would not hit inhabited areas.

McDowell, however, expressed concern over the large piece of space junk at the time it was thrown out, arguing that it was too large for an uncontrolled reentry. “NASA was rolling the dice…and they made an unlucky throw,” he said.

The uncontrolled disposal of an object this large is not routine. The old batteries were supposed to be placed inside a Japanese HTV cargo ship for proper disposal. However, a backlog forced NASA to simply toss the batteries inside a cargo pallet using the space station’s robotic arm, which led to the uncontrolled reentry.

The European Space Agency (ESA) was also monitoring the pallet’s reentry and estimated that some parts may reach the ground but that the likelihood of a person being hit were very low.

“This is like a small piece of either the pallet or the batteries, or a piece of the battery structure,” McDowell added. “So you had two-ton thing that reentered the atmosphere and this is some small fragment of it that survived and went through this poor guy’s house.” Or at least, that seems to be the story.

It’s not clear what would happen if it was proven that the cylinder-shaped object did in fact come from the ISS, and which organization would be responsible for compensating the family in Florida. In fact, there isn’t even a proper procedure for civilians to report these types of incidents. In this case, it took a vocal home owner to get someone’s attention online, but that may not always be the case.

A version of this article originally appeared on Gizmodo. 



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