Perhaps the most recognizable sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the match cut between a rotating bone and an orbiting satellite, a representation of human progress from its earliest stages fast forwarded, in one fell swoop, to the forefront of human technical achievement.
However, technology doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Sometimes, the satellites fall from the sky.
How it got there is a mystery.
The satellite piece appeared in early December. I had arrived in the Grenadines several weeks later in January, where I would be testing out a new macro underwater photography rig, not expecting that the most interesting aspect of the trip would be above water on an otherwise-empty sand beach.
According to the Tobago Cays marine park ranger I talked to, the satellite was discovered floating in the water by one of his colleagues. It briefly attracted worldwide attention from news crews and government officials before disappearing from the media radar almost as suddenly as it showed up. (For example, search for ‘satellite grenadines’ and you will get nothing but television offers and pictures taken from space).
The ranger speculated it could be related to the recently failed Mars Probe that the European Space Agency lost contact with (Earth to satellite? Where are you?) However, the time frame is slightly off: the Mars Probe was anticipated to return to Earth in mid January which it has since done, and that probe entered the atmosphere around the same time I landed in St. Georges.
But the writing on the satellite gives weight to the idea that it’s Russian in origin.
The satellite was the subject of two articles in a local newspaper (1) (2), where an online commentator claimed it was part of an “Arianne Space Solutions series Soyuz 3 delivery system rocket” and is related to a piece that purportedly washed up in Barbados in July, from a launch site owned by the company in French Guiana.
A photo caption of a local article describing the discovery says that the flamingo mural on the back side of the piece (not visible in the photographs I took, as that side was facing down in the sand) was matched to markings from a launch in French Guiana, yet it is not clear to me how someone in the US embassy in the Grenadines would know the decorative details about the exterior of a Russian satellite launched in a department of France.
One thing that is likely is that the satellite will remain unclaimed. As of now, no one has formally declared the piece as their own (this makes a certain amount of sense, as it would be a somewhat embarrassing admission.)
Any telltales signs of a specific satellite – as opposed to coming from ‘a satellite’ in general – would have burned up in the atmosphere upon reentry or sank in the ocean, as only the lightweight exterior, aided in part by the titanium honeycomb construction seen below, has enough buoyancy to float.
For the time being, the satellite still sits in sand, a reminder that we often only know what is up there in space when something goes wrong. Until this mystery is solved, here are some more photos to enjoy…
Photos taken by Conor L. Myhrvold