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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Re-Entering Chinese Rocket Booster Lights Up Western United States Skies

By Phil Plait

On Wednesday night, at around 9:30 p.m. Pacific time, a huge fireball lit up the sky from California to Utah. Moving eerily slowly, bits of it were seen to fall off like sparks as it made its way across the sky.

Twitter lit up like the fireball itself at the time, and I was flooded with replies and queries. One of the first tweets I saw had one of the best videos of the event, taken by Matt Holt in Utah. Watch this:

As soon as I saw this I knew it wasn’t a meteor; that is, not a piece of asteroidal rock or metal coming in from deep space. Those move much more quickly across the sky, and tend not to break up with pieces following it like that.

Clearly, this was human-made space junk. Orbital speeds are much slower than interplanetary speeds (eight kilometers per second for low Earth orbit versus 20 up to 100 kps for meteors). Remember the end of the movie Gravity, when Sandra Bullock comes back to Earth in a Chinese re-entry vehicle, and you see bits of it streaming around her as it burns up? Yeah. Pretty much that.

Not too long after the event the piece of space junk was identified: It was a booster from a Chinese Chang Zheng 7 (Long March) rocket, which re-entered at 04:36 UTC (thanks to my friend and space junk junkie Jonathan McDowell for that info), moving roughly southwest to northeast. It launched on June 25.

Here’s another video, taken by Ian Norman in Alabama Hills, California, in the Sierra Nevadas not too far from the Nevada border (note: some NSFW language):

Pretty amazing. Another person there with Norman made a great video of it as well.

Astrophotographer Jeff Sullivan happened to be shooting near Mono Lake in California and captured it as well as it set over the hills:

Apparently it was spotted as far east as Colorado, which means if I had been outside, I might have seen it, but there’s also a big wildfire a hundred km or so to my northwest that’s covered the sky in smoke, so it’s hard to say if I’d have seen it or not. Oh well.

So, bottom line is that this wasn’t a meteor, it’s not the end of the world, or aliens, or anything like that. I mean, ho-hum, it was just a piece of human-made technology, designed to take objects from the surface of our planet into space, coming back down at 20,000 kilometers per hour, disintegrating and burning up as it rammed through the air 100 km up at transonic speeds.

Y’know, boring stuff like that.

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