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Skyfall in Gujarat, expert says likely debris of a Chinese rocket

It started with three metal balls that fell on Bhalej, Khambholaj and Rampura villages on Thursday evening. They were followed by fragments of metal, one of which apparently fell on a sheep pen in a farm, killing a lamb.

Written by Aditi Raja | Vadodara |
Updated: May 31, 2022 3:06:12 pm
‘Metal balls’ fell on Bhalej, Khambholaj and Rampura villages on Thursday evening

First came the metal balls, five of them, one after the other. Then came bits and pieces of metal, one that looked like a “ruler”.

Across a clutch of villages in central Gujarat, the sky is falling — literally.

It started with three metal balls that fell on Bhalej, Khambholaj and Rampura villages on Thursday evening. They were followed by fragments of metal, one of which apparently fell on a sheep pen in a farm, killing a lamb.

No one’s yet got a grip on what’s been happening. Gujarat officials said an ISRO team has collected samples but the premier space organisation declined comment.

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The only possible clue so far has come from an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tweeted this could possibly be debris from the “re-entry of the third stage” of a Chinese launch rocket.

It was around 4.45 pm on May 12 that the first chunk — a large, black ball weighing around 5kg — fell in Bhalej followed by two more in Khambholaj and Rampura — all located within 15 km from each other in Anand district.

 

Even as the local police were called in, a similar ball fell in Chaklasi village in neighbouring Kheda district, followed by another in Vadodara’s Savli taluka on May 13. A day later, villagers from Kasor in Sojitra taluka of Anand reported that a fragment “resembling a ruler” fell on a farm, killing a lamb. And on Monday, the police received a similar call from Khodiyarpura in the same taluka.

According to police, the objects fell mostly in empty areas — some on heaps of mud. And in all cases, they have begun probes, roping in forensic experts.

On May 12, astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted that the debris could possibly be the “re-entry of the third stage from the Chang Zheng 3B serial Y86 launch rocket”. The rocket had lifted off on September 9, 2021, carrying a 5,500-kg communication satellite to geostationary transit orbit.

Speaking to The Indian Express, McDowell said he was identifying the debris based on tracking data, which showed that this object was “the only reentry that day (May 12) that went anywhere near India”.

He said “the predicted path was a few 100 km north of the villages in question, but that’s within the uncertainties for this particular object since its orbit was more uncertain than usual”. The orbit was rapidly changing due to atmospheric drag, which may cause a change in the predicted ground location, he said.

Anand District Collector, M Y Daxini, said: “We have sent all the items, including the metal spheres that fell last week, to the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) of ISRO. They have collected all the parts and are examining it.”

When contacted, ISRO PRL director Anil Bharadwaj said he was out of station and would be able to comment on Tuesday. ISRO Space Applications Centre (SAC) director Nilesh Desai was not available for comment.

But in the villages where the “debris” have fallen, local residents have a lot to say — even though police suspect there could be more to it than space debris.

“There was a huge sound from the sky and blinding light. I could not see anything but almost the next instant, there was a loud noise and I saw that a metal piece had fallen on a lamb. It was hot and killed the lamb instantly,” said Nathi Rabari in Kasor’s Bhemali Talavdi area.

According to the local police, when they reached the spot, Rabari told them the lamb’s carcass was taken away by dogs and could not be found.

“We have registered a note case based on information received from the owner of the house that a domestic animal was killed from the impact of the falling metal fragment. No other casualty has been reported from any other place,” Anand SP Ajit Rajiaan said.

“They primarily appear to be objects made of high-density metal alloys used for rocket launch. They were also burnt out and had hints of vapourisation, which is what happens when they withstand high temperatures and make their way to the earth… they mostly fell in muddy areas,” Rajiaan said.

But now, the police are facing a series of calls from villages claiming that more domestic animals have been killed in such incidents. “We are cautiously moving ahead with these cases. Many calls are turning out to be frivolous,” the SP said.

“For instance, we received a call from a man who claimed that his buffalo had died after one of these objects fell. On probing, we learnt that he had a loan pending and was trying his luck to get compensation.”

(With Sohini Ghosh in Ahmedabad)

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