The remains of the SpaceX rocket create a fantastic light show in the sky of the Pacific Northwest

Stargazers from Oregon and Washington enjoyed an unexpected sight last night: what looked like a meteor shower lazily streaking through the night sky that was most likely the remains of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, burning as it traveled through the atmosphere.

Although SpaceX has yet to claim responsibility for the show, numerous meteorologists and astronomers identified the lights in the sky as harmless rocket remnants. (You can see many videos of the event in the reply to this Twitter thread.)

“We had a really good show tonight thanks to SpaceX,” James Davenport, an astronomer at the University of Washington, told the NBC affiliate. KING5. “This was the top end, what we call the second stage, of a Falcon 9 rocket. Actually, it launched about three weeks ago and did exactly what it was supposed to do: it put satellites into orbit.”

“The only failure it had was that it did not complete its orbit burn, so it did not come down when and where we expected it. He’s been waiting to go down for the last three weeks and we were lucky and it crossed our minds. ”

The Falcon 9 is a partially reusable two-stage rocket. The first stage, which houses nine of SpaceX’s Merlin engines, does the initial heavy lifting, lifting the rocket off the ground, while the second stage, with a single Merlin engine, guides it into a parking orbit.

The first stage can be driven back to Earth, and it’s this section of the rocket that you’ve probably seen land safely (or sometimes not!) On SpaceX drone ships. The second stage is generally left to decompose in orbit or directed to burn out in the planet’s atmosphere.

This particular launch took place on March 4, putting another batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit, with the rocket’s first stage landing safely on Earth.

Landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9

The Falcon 9 rocket is built from two stages. The former can safely land on Earth (as seen above) while the latter is generally headed to disintegrate in the atmosphere.
Image: SpaceX / The Verge

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, tweeted a thread about the event, noting that this type of debris re-entry is not uncommon. “This is the fourteenth piece of space debris with a mass of more than one ton to have reentered since January 1 of this year.” McDowell said. “In other words, about one a week. Plus, of course, many more smaller chunks. “

McDowell points out that predicting the timing of these reentries can be tricky. The debris breaks up high in the atmosphere, about 40 miles or 60 kilometers above the ground, which is well above the cruising altitude of commercial flights (about eight miles or 12 kilometers high). But the combination of headwinds in Earth’s upper atmosphere and travel speed (debris is moving at around 17,000 mph) make it difficult to predict exactly when and where re-entry will occur.

Seattle’s National Weather Service (NWS) also identified lights bright like debris from a Falcon 9 second stage. The NWS noted that the reentry rate of such debris is much slower than that of meteor showers, which move at speeds greater than 45,000 mph.

Such reentries are generally safe, and all components and materials of the rocket burn up in the atmosphere. As the Seattle NWS tweeted: “There are no expected impacts on the ground in our region at this time.”

At the moment, it seems that the only lasting effect will be a lot of fantastic images like the following video:

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