Debris from rocket launch found floating off Brac

Debris from a Russian-made Soyuz rocket that was launched from French Guiana in December 2019. - Photo: Tyrone Scott

Tyrone Scott has encountered some strange things in Cayman’s waters.

He once pulled in a 12-foot giant squid. He’s seen humpback and killer whales, even a drug canoe riddled with bullet holes.

But until last Thursday he had never encountered a rocket ship.

Fisherman Tyrone Scott

Tyrone was fishing off the west end of Cayman Brac with his brother Larry, when they came across a piece of floating debris.

It was 18 feet by 15 feet, white and grey with a multi-coloured emblem.

There were barnacles attached, and they thought it might be the hull of a sailboat wrecked in a storm some time back.

But when Tyrone sent his pictures to his cousin Croy McCoy at the Department of Environment, they made a surprising discovery.

Tim Austin, deputy director at the department, thought he recognised the emblem as part of a space programme.

The VS23 Soyuz rocket launches on 18 December 2019. – Photo: Arianespace

He googled the names on the debris and a few minutes later he was watching video footage of a rocket taking off from French Guiana.

You have to freeze frame the video and zoom in a few times to see it, but there, unmistakably, is the same pattern of coloured symbols.

Rockets carrying European satellites are launched frequently from the space centre in the French territory on the northeastern tip of South America.

But the only recent launch of an ANGELS nano-satellite involving the French company Hemeria group – the two names that appear on the debris – was a Russian-made Soyuz rocket that lifted off in December 2019.

According to a press release on the launch, the rocket actually carried a package of five satellites, including an Italian radar reconnaissance craft and a European Space Agency exoplanet science probe.

The floating debris that the Scott brothers encountered is the protective shell that covered the satellites, known as the payload fairings. It falls away once the rocket reaches a certain altitude.

Austin managed to reach the Hemeria group by email and a representative confirmed the debris was associated with their satellite launch programme.

The rocket prepares for launch. – Photo: Arianespace

They enquired about the possibility of recovering the wreckage to be returned to France.

Had he known it was part of a rocket, Tyrone said, he would have hauled it in. As it was, the brothers left it floating on the currents towards Grand Cayman.

“I was shocked when my cousin told me it was a rocket,” he said. “I didn’t think stuff like that happened around here.

“I am sorry I didn’t bring it in. I had a 25-foot boat and we were about 300 yards from the bay, so I probably could have towed it.”

Tyrone said the debris was floating southwest and was probably headed towards Grand Cayman. “Maybe the helicopter can spot it,” he said.

John Bothwell, of the Department of Environment, said the flotsam would not be a major threat to wildlife unless it sunk on a reef.

“It is quite cool to see it,” he said, “but [it’s] also a reminder of how much debris ends up in the ocean from everywhere, including rocket ships.”

A video of the VS23 rocket launch can be seen here.

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