The small islands in the Dry Tortugas have seen more than their fair share of old Cuban chugs and other debris wash up on their shores, but the Fourth of July brought an unusual surprise to National Park Service staff.
A rather large unidentified object floated into the park's boundaries overnight and washed up on Long Key near Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. After some investigation, it turned out to be part of the main fuselage of an European Space Agency rocket, according to Park Manager Glenn Simpson.
Park rangers and other staff spent the holiday and most of July 5 moving the rocket piece out of the Garden Key Harbor and up onto the south coaling dock at Fort Jefferson, Simpson said.
The fuselage was discovered late Thursday by visiting researcher Wes Pratt from Mote Marine Lab.
He and his wife spotted the big object on Long Key when they were kayaking. Using the marine radio, they called Ranger Adam Bass, who quickly launched a park patrol boat to investigate, according to Simpson.
Pratt and Bass could not move the big chunk of rocket, especially at low tide. They put a light on it to see it as the tide rose.
Hours later, the Pratts contacted the park office after the object drifted in the higher tide and was headed for the dock on Garden Key, park spokeswoman Linda Friar said.
Working in darkness, Bass was able to move it to the park's finger piers and secure it for the night. The following morning, Bass, Simpson and other staff moved the wreckage to the south Coaling Dock, away from the area frequented by park visitors. The fuselage will remain there until its owners reclaim it or it is disposed of.
Park staff found several manufacturer plates attached to various parts of the wreckage indicating that it belonged to the European Space Agency program.
Simpson was able to further determine its origin. A Web page for the France-based Arianespace program showed images of a rocket similar to the one found in the Tortugas, Simpson said.
Based on Simpson's preliminary investigation, the rocket was launched from French Guinea and is likely one of four launched between November and this month, he said.
The rockets are unmanned and appear to be disposable.
Simpson has contacted a representative of Arianespace to determine if the company wants it back.
"If Arianespace does not claim the wreckage, we will have to cut it up and recycle what we can," Simpson said. "As it is manufactured from composite materials, recycling will be a challenge."
Park staff often see boats and debris from all over the world because of the park's remote location and proximity to ocean shipping lanes.