While hiking near Moffat County Road 9 last month, Robert Dunn heard a noise he said sounded like scraping.
“It was just an odd noise, it just wasn’t natural,” Dunn said. “It wasn’t an airplane and it wasn’t my cell phone. I listened, and that was it.”
Several hours later, Dunn, a 57-year-old resident of Dixon, Wyo., who was searching for horns shed by deer and elk at the time, found what he believes caused the strange noise — a pressurant tank from a Russian rocket.
He found the round, titanium tank March 21, not far from a two-track road about five miles south of the Colorado/Wyoming border on Bureau of Land Management property.
The tank weighs about 70 pounds and has a diameter of about 30 inches. There are two spots where valves would have been connected.
A quarterly newsletter from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program indicated the tank was likely part of Zenit-3 SLBF, a Russian Federal Space Agency launch booster that was tested in January.
The second stage of the booster fell back from orbit and likely reentered over Los Angeles on March 19, NASA reported.
But, when contacted this week, NASA spokesman William Jeffs said the agency is certain the object found in Moffat County was indeed from the Russian craft.
The trajectory of the stage, timing of the discovery and markings on the tank helped identify it, he said.
“It is from the Russian vehicle,” Jeffs said in an e-mail. “Timing, location and markings helped identify it.”
According to the newsletter, “trajectory carried debris over Utah and the extreme northwestern corner of Colorado.”
Dunn said the tank is used to hold helium under pressure. The helium is later used to push fuel to the engine of the rocket. Dunn said he was told there were two or three of the tanks on the rocket.
Dunn found the tank while he was alone. The tank was still warm and sitting amongst sagebrush in a crater about a foot deep and a yard in diameter.
“I looked for another spot where maybe it bounced, but it hit almost perpendicular,” Dunn said. “It blew the sand out and, of course, got the wrinkle (on its body) on the impact.”
Dunn said his first thought when approaching the object was that it was a cattle tub.
“When they’re empty, the wind will actually take them and roll them and bounce them across the prairie,” Dunn said. “You can see those in odd places, but I was close enough to this that I could see it was round.
“It didn’t look like a weather balloon and when I walked up to it, I could tell it was metal.”
When he realized it could have come from high above, he took a picture of the tank and called his girlfriend, who was hiking several miles away.
They tried to get back to their home to contact authorities before offices closed for the day.
Dunn said he first contacted North American Aerospace Defense Command, and was then told to contact the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office contacted NASA’s Orbital Debris program.
Dunn said his original concern was that the tank was part of a nuclear space project.
“I was worried about it being a vessel for a nuclear reactor,” he said. “I touched it, then I worried after I touched it that I had been radiated or something.”
The next day, Dunn and sheriff’s office corporal Todd Wheeler went to retrieve the tank and discovered Russian engraving on it, which Dunn believes to be some of the tank’s technical specifications.
Dunn and Wheeler made sure the tank had nothing inside and was not hazardous before they loaded it into Dunn’s truck.
It was a muddy day and multiple trucks were needed to help get through various snowdrifts leading to the tank, and Dunn’s front bumper came off during the trip.
Currently, Dunn is storing the tank at his home in Dixon. He isn’t sure what he’ll do with the object.
Jeffs said Russia likely registered the stage of the rocket with the United Nations and could ask for the tank’s return under a UN convention.
Dunn said he never doubted the tank came from space.
“I looked down and then looked up and said, ‘This thing fell from the sky,’” he said. “Other chunks of metal you might think are just scrap from something else, but (a tank), you’d know. I think anybody would know if that’s what you found.
“I don’t know whether they were aiming for the Pacific or not, but they missed it by a couple thousand miles.”
He said that in his conversations with NASA, people seemed surprised such a large piece of debris made it to the surface.
NASA reported no other debris from the stage has been located.
Jeffs said if other debris is found, it is unlikely to be hazardous, although he recommends contacting local authorities to handle it.
Dunn said he believes there could be other pieces of the craft elsewhere in the area.
“If they fall a few inches apart (in space) that could make a 100-mile difference,” he said. “There could be some more of that around.”
He described the discovery as a “wow moment.”
“You look at it and know it just didn’t belong here and nobody packed it here,” he said. “It just came falling out of the sky.”
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