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Mystery cylinder on Western Australia beach likely space junk, authorities say

<i>Core News/Reuters</i><br/>Mystery object washes up on a beach in western Australia
Core News/Reuters
Mystery object washes up on a beach in western Australia

By Chris Lau, CNN

Hong Kong (CNN) — A mystery object that washed ashore on Australia’s western coast sparking a flurry of local excitement and speculation over its origin is most likely space junk, police said Tuesday.

Since it has turned up on a beach at Green Head, a coastal town 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Perth, the copper-colored cylinder had drawn in curious local residents eager to catch a glimpse of the unidentified object.

Speculation also erupted online with people posting a host of theories about where it might have come from.

The Western Australia Police Force said in a statement on Tuesday that the item is believed to be “space debris”, echoing similar comments from the country’s space agency which was working on the same hypothesis.

Police were initially cautious, throwing up a cordon around the object and telling locals to keep away.

But in a new update on Tuesday, police said an analysis by the Department of Fire and Emergency Service and Chemistry Centre of Western Australia had found the object to be safe, posing no current risk to the community.

Police added they were discussing ways with relevant agencies to safely remove and store the object, while working on finalizing their findings.

But space junk looks the most likely explanation.

“The object could be from a foreign space launch vehicle and we are liaising with global counterparts who may be able to provide more information,” the Australian Space Agency tweeted on Monday.

The bulky cylinder, which stands taller than a human, appears to be damaged at one end and is covered with barnacles, suggesting it has spent a significant amount of time at sea before washing up.

The space agency urged people to avoid handling and moving the object due to its unknown origin and to report any further discovery of suspected debris.

Police said previously that the item did not appear to originate from a commercial aircraft and vowed to guard it until its removal.

Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist from Flinders University in Adelaide, said the cylinder is likely the third phase of a polar satellite launch vehicle previously launched by India.

“It is identical in dimension and materials,” Gorman told CNN, comparing it with launch vehicles used by India since 2010.

Space rockets are multi-stage, meaning they are made up of various compartments carrying fuel, each of which are dumped in a sequential order when the propellant runs out, with much of the debris falling back to Earth.

Gorman also said the largely intact color and shape of the cylinder suggests that it did not reach outer space before it detached, sparing it from intense burn with the atmosphere on re-entry. It may have landed in the ocean about five to 10 years ago until a recent deep sea storm pushed it to the shore, she added.

Gorman said the cylinder runs on solid fuel, which only releases toxic substances under high temperature. But she advised local residents to err on the side of caution.

“Just as general rule, you don’t touch space junk unless you need to,” she said.

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