AN outback farmer is on a mission to identify a strange ball of twisted metal - purported to be fallen space junk - which mysteriously turned up on his remote property.

James Stirton of Cheepie, 130km from Charleville in southwestern Queensland, was heading out to feed cattle on his 40,500-hectare property when he came upon the bizarre-looking blackened ball.

"It was just off the road and I had been going up there every couple of days to feed cattle so I would be surprised if it had been there more than a week," Mr Stirton said.

©James Stirton
The ball of twisted metal - thought to be space junk - on James Stirton's Queensland property

"We got a shock when we first saw it. I had no idea what it was."

Suspecting it was a piece of space junk, Mr Stirton contacted the Aerospace Corporation - a research arm of the US Government - to get some sort of confirmation.

"I know about sheep and cattle but I don't know much about satellites," he said.

While a spokesman for Aerospace Corp. told it was still working to identify the object, aerospace industry sources who contacted Mr Stirton believe it to be part of a rocket launched at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1998.


Although he made the discovery in November last year, Mr Stirton waited until Easter to launch his own proper investigation into the object's origin.

"I talked to some people in Charleville and got on the internet and kind of figured it out for myself," Mr Stirton said.

He now believes the object is a helium tank wrapped in carbon fibre (similar to the red tanks depicted here) from a booster rocket used to launch communications satellites.

Mr Stirton said the ball appears to have landed partially on a tree stump, making a crater a few centimeters deep before rolling about 5m to its resting spot.

"If it hit you, you wouldn't have gotten up,'' he said.

"We don't get many visitors here but anyone who has seen it has either wanted to touch it or has stood back afraid that someone was going to jump out of it.

"Everybody keeps telling me that it's probably worth a lot of money but no one's offered me anything for it yet."

About 200 pieces of space junk - parts of satellites and jettisoned rockets - re-enter the atmosphere each year.

Most of it disintegrates but some pieces survive the enormous heat generated on re-entry and make it to the ground.

One in a trillion

The chances of being struck by space junk are one in a trillion and the only person ever reportedly struck described it as feeling like a gentle tap on her shoulder.

Yet space technology curator at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum Kerrie Dougherty said the objects could slam into the earth at hundreds of kilometres an hour.

"It's not that uncommon to find something like this, particularly in that part of southwest Queensland because there is a very large area of ground for these objects to fall on," she said.

"They're not falling out there every day but there a few reports of people finding stuff each year."

Ms Dougherty said most rockets were launched over desolate areas or oceans to avoid parts falling on people and modern satellites were equipped with the ability to manoeuvre and fall back to earth over unpopulated areas.