Australian police are guarding a mystery cylinder that washed ashore on the country’s western coast as officials say the object of much local fascination, and speculation, is most likely space junk.
The Australian Space Agency said Monday that it is looking into the copper-colored cylinder spotted recently on a beach at Green Head, a coastal town 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Perth, capital of Western Australia.
“The object could be from a foreign space launch vehicle and we are liaising with global counterparts who may be able to provide more information,” the agency tweeted.
The bulky cylinder, which stands taller than a human, appears to be damaged at one end and is covered with barnacles, suggesting it has spent a significant amount of time at sea before washing up.
The space agency urged people to avoid handling and moving the object due to its unknown origin and to report any further discovery of suspected debris.
The Western Australia Police Force said in a separate statement that they will be treating the object as “hazardous until the origin of it can be established.”
“People in the area should keep a safe distance,” they said, adding that a joint investigation with other government agencies is under way to find out its origin and nature.
“The investigation is ongoing, and until further information is available, we urge everyone to refrain from drawing conclusions,” the police added.
The arrival of the object sparked feverish speculation among locals – and online – as to its origins with guesses ranging from part of an airplane to a component of a spacecraft.
But the police have said the item did not appear to originate from a commercial aircraft.
Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist from Flinders University in Adelaide, said the cylinder is likely the third phase of a polar satellite launch vehicle previously launched by India.
“It is identical in dimension and materials,” Gorman told CNN, comparing it with launch vehicles used by India since 2010.
Space rockets are multi-stage, meaning they are made up of various compartments carrying fuel, each of which are dumped in a sequential order when the propellant runs out, with much of the debris falling back to Earth.
Gorman also said the largely intact color and shape of the cylinder suggests that it did not reach outer space before it detached, sparing it from intense burn with the atmosphere on re-entry. It may have landed in the ocean about five to 10 years ago until a recent deep sea storm pushed it to the shore, she added.
Gorman said the cylinder runs on solid fuel, which only releases toxic substances under high temperature. But she advised local residents to err on the side of caution.
“Just as general rule, you don’t touch space junk unless you need to,” she said.