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Most orbital debris eventually re-enters the atmosphere. The vast majority of this burns up on re-entry, and only a small proportion of what's left lands on the surface.

Of that small proportion, the majority will land in the ocean (there is a lot of ocean!), and a fair chunk of the rest is probably never found, or just never identified. Nonetheless, every year or two something is turned up, and occasionally it's very dramatic.

When was the first time an object was found and identified as re-entering debris? I've been able to find a reference to a probable case in 1964 - Cosmos 50, which apparently had debris recovered in Malawi, discussed on p. 30 here - but nothing as yet from earlier. There were a number of cases as early as 1960 when debris from sub-orbital second stages were found in unusual places, but that's not quite the same question...

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    $\begingroup$ Great question! $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jun 2 '16 at 19:11
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According Wikipedia, the earliest space debris that survived re-entry, were pieces and components from Apollo SA-6 CSM BP-13 called AS-101 which was a testing spacecraft completing 54 orbits before re-entering in atmosphere and crashing in east of Kanton Island in the Pacific Ocean on June 1, 1964. These space debris are listed as the earliest to survive re-entry in atmosphere but i guess that were not recovered.

The re-entry date of Cosmos 50 was later on November 5, 1964 according the source you have found.

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  • $\begingroup$ But did it actually reach the surface of the earth? I can't find any supporting information there. Possibly the writer of that sentence in Wikipedia just assumes some of it did. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 3 '16 at 5:48
  • $\begingroup$ I saw that list, but (while a bit vaguely worded) it seems to just be listing the largest objects to reenter - no indication that pieces were actually found. Hmm. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Jun 3 '16 at 7:43

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