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Mysterious 'space ball' found in Namibia is a really serious problem

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NASA is investigating a mysterious "space ball" that crash-landed in a remote area of Namibia.

Uh oh... it looks like NASA might have dropped something -- again. Or perhaps the strange object that suddenly came down from the heavens is the property of another Space Agency. Either way, somebody probably wants it back.

Authorities in Namibia have alerted NASA and the European Space Agency of a mysterious piece of space junk that crash-landed in a remote area of Namibia. The metallic sphere-shaped ball looks to be about the size of a basketball and weighs around 13 pounds. As you can see from the photo, the object also appears to be man-made and was described by a local forensics expert as being made of a "metal alloy known to man."

The "space ball" was initially discovered in November, a few days after residents living in a nearby village reported hearing a series of explosions, which were likely the sounds of a sonic boom as the plummeting debris broke through the sound barrier. While the object was relatively small, the impact generated such great force that it created a hole 33 centimeter deep and 3.8 meters wide. The ball was found 60 feet from the crash site.

Although some locals may have been alarmed, local police deputy inspector general Vilho Hifindaka reassured the community that object was not hazardous. "It is not an explosive device, but rather hollow, but we had to investigate all this first," he told AFP.

Nonetheless the potential impact of free-falling space debris gives a sense of why there was such widespread panic back in October and November when a couple of car-sized out-of-control satellites fell from orbit. Luckily, it ended up being a close call for not only NASA and German space officials, but also the rest of humanity as both satellites ended up harmlessly landing in non-populated regions. However, all these incidences have highlighted the growing problem of a crowded outer atmosphere littered with about 370,000 pieces of space junk, a situation that has led to concerns over potential collisions not only on Earth but with other communications equipment operating from above.

As for the puzzling mystery of what exactly the object was, it's most likely a "Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel," which is used to store gases under pressure in a space environment, according to Ian O'Neill over at Discovery News. And similar aircraft parts have turned up at locations in Brazil and Australia.

"How" you ask?

While nearly all falling debris usually burn up upon re-entry, COPVs are designed to withstand high pressure using durable composite materials, which makes surviving a scorching return from the celestial heavens a breeze -- and a problem.

Photo: National Forensic Science Institute

(via Discovery News, AFP)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure