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What is that? Fuel tank from satellite lands in walnut orchard in Hanford

A piece of space junk found on a farm near Hanford, California turned out to be from a communications satellite that re-entered the atmosphere.
A piece of space junk found on a farm near Hanford, California turned out to be from a communications satellite that re-entered the atmosphere. Kings County Sheriff's Office

What goes up must come down, but this space debris came down in a farmer’s field.

Deputies in Kings County were dispatched on Saturday to a walnut ranch near Hanford in the area of 8th and Houston avenues.

The farmer had located a large and unusual metal object in his walnut orchard.

At first, it was unknown exactly what the object was. Deputies took it to the sheriff’s office for storage.

Detectives got on the case and reached out to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where rocket launches take place. They learned the object was probably a fuel tank from a satellite owned by Iridium, a communications satellite company.

Next, a detective contacted Iridium. A representative from the company identified the debris as what was left of a hydrazine fuel tank attached to a communications satellite owned and operated by Iridium, sheriff’s office said.

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This space debris fell into a walnut orchard near Hanford, California. Kings County Sheriff's Department

It said the company identified the tank as coming from Iridium Satellite #70. The satellite was launched into space in late 1997 or early 1998 and was in a low orbit until it entered Earth’s atmosphere.

But a spokesman for Iridium said while it is possible that it’s from an Iridium satellite, until engineers analyze the object it’s too soon to say where it came from.

“We need to see it,” said spokesman Jordan Hassin. “We may never be 100 percent certain.”

The company has dozens of satellites in low-Earth orbit and is in the process of “deorbiting” older satellites and putting up new ones, he said.

The purpose of the tank was to store fuel used to change the orbit of the satellite in space. The tank could be positively identified due to governmental agencies tracking space debris, the Kings County Sheriff’s Office said.

Iridium told local officials the tank is of special interest because it is the first piece recovered from an Iridium satellite re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, so it will be closely examined. Most low-Earth orbit satellites end up burning up in the atmosphere or landing in the ocean.

The tank was turned over to an employee of Iridium who journeyed Wednesday to Hanford from Tempe, Arizona to retrieve it.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold
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