Sky watchers in the Pacific Northwest saw an unexpected display of pyrotechnics overhead Thursday night (March 25).
In video footage, a slow-motion meteor shower seems to fly above our heads, with dozens of glowing orbs trailing fiery tails across the sky. In reality, it was likely the death spiral of a SpaceX rocket, experts said.
“The widely reported bright objects in the sky were debris from a second stage Falcon 9 rocket that failed to achieve a desorb burn,” said the Seattle branch. National Weather Service (NWS) tweeted shortly after the event. “Based on the observed video, this seems more likely than a bolide meteorite or similar object, as they would move much faster upon impact with our atmosphere.” (A fireball is a bright meteor often called a fireball, according to NASA.)
According to Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell, the debris likely came from a Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 4 to put several Starlink satellites into orbit. (Starlink is a constellation of more than 1,000 Internet satellites that SpaceX is building; the constellation will eventually include more than 30,000 satellites.)
As Live Science previously reported, Falcon 9 rockets reach the atmosphere thanks to two main boosters, or stages. The first stage, which houses nine engines, lifts the rocket off the launch pad; eventually the first stage undocks and can be remotely routed back to a SpaceX spacecraft for reuse (sometimes that part doesn’t work as well).
The second stage, which contains a single engine, guides the rocket into orbit, then it is generally allowed to decompose in the atmosphere, becoming just another piece of space junk.
According to McDowell, the second stage of the rocket that launched on March 4 “failed to deorbit” after launching the Starlink satellites, meaning it did not land where expected. After three weeks of being adrift in the atmosphere, it finally fell on Thursday and broke apart in a spectacular explosion.
The NWS emphasized that there is no risk that any of those fiery fragments of debris have passed through the atmosphere to cause damage. And according to McDowell, large chunks of space debris burn in our atmosphere more often than you might think.
“This is the fourteenth piece of space debris with a mass of more than one ton [1.1 tons] that has re-entered since January 1 of this year “ McDowell tweeted. “In other words, about one a week. Plus, of course, a lot more smaller parts.”
Originally posted on Live Science.