Are there examples of objects that have survived reentry?

More than 50 debris objects have been recovered and documented over the years (see recovered debris), and there are several noteworthy examples.

On Jan. 22, 1997, a Delta second stage reentered and four objects were recovered: a 250-kg stainless steel tank, a 30-kg pressure sphere, a 45-kg thrust chamber, and a lightweight piece that struck but did not injure a woman.

On April 27, 2000, a Delta second stage used in the launch of a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite reentered and debris impacted near Cape Town, South Africa. The recovered debris was nearly identical to that recovered in Texas.

Thrust chamber recovered in South Africa. Photo: Die Burger/Antonie Robertson

Thrust chamber recovered in South Africa. Photo: Die Burger/Antonie Robertson

In general, components made of aluminum and similar materials with low melting temperatures do not survive reentry, while pieces or components made of materials with high melting temperatures, such as stainless steel, titanium, and glass, often do survive. Large pieces with moderate melting temperatures can also survive reentry, radiating heat over their large surface areas. Pieces that survive reentry tend to be large and in some cases heavy, posing a significant hazard to any people and property within the bounds of the object’s reentry debris footprint.

It is interesting to note that even low melting temperature materials can survive under the right circumstances. For example, a lightweight piece that comes off of the parent body early in the reentry may not experience sufficient heating to melt, and another object contained within the body of the satellite and protected by surrounding structure through most of the reentry may also survive.

Helium tank recovered in Brazil. Photo: TV Globo/G1

Helium tank recovered in Brazil. Photo: TV Globo/G1

One object recovered from the reentry of the Delta second stage into Texas was this 250-kg propellant tank. Photo: NASA

One object recovered from the reentry of the Delta second stage into Texas was this 250-kg propellant tank. Photo: NASA

Pressure sphere recovered in South Africa. Photo: Argus/Enver Essop

Pressure sphere recovered in South Africa. Photo: Argus/Enver Essop

Delta second stage propellant tank recovered in South Africa. Photo: Die Burger/Johann van Tonder

Delta second stage propellant tank recovered in South Africa. Photo: Die Burger/Johann van Tonder

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