Chinese Fireball Freaks Out Las Vegas

Astronomers have confirmed that the fiery debris spotted over the south-western US this week was a Chinese rocket. Credit: NBC

Seeing a fireball erupt in the sky is not an unusual occurrence. Especially during late July, when the Delta Aquirid meteor shower is so near to peaking. At times like this, dozens of fiery objects can be observed streaking across the atmosphere. But on this occasion, the light show that was spotted over Las Vegas earlier this week had a stranger cause.

The fireball appeared on Wednesday July 27th, at around 9:30 p.m. (Pacific Time), and could be seen from California to Utah. News and videos of the fiery apparition were quickly posted on social media, where astronomers began to notice something odd. And as it turned out, it was NOT the result of a meteor shower, but was in fact was the second stage of a rocket hitting the atmosphere, courtesy of the Chinese National Space Agency.

Such was the conclusion of Phil Plait, an astronomer and writer for Slate. After seeing a video shot of the display, he took to Twitter to question the explanation that it was the result of the Delta Aquirids. Based on his observations, he asserted that the event was actually the result of space debris burning up in the atmosphere.

His posts encouraged Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to do some checking. After looking into the matter, McDowell determined that the cause was a spent stage of a Chinese rocket falling back to Earth. As he posted on Twitter:

“Observation reports from Utah indicate the second stage from the first Chang Zheng 7 rocket, launched Jun 25, reentered at 0440 UTC.”

The Chang Zheng 7 is the latest in a line of Chinese rockets. It’s name translates to “Long March”, in honor of Mao’s forces marching into China’s interior during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). A liquid-fueled carrier rocket designed to handle medium to heavy payloads, this rocket was developed to replace the Chinese Space Agency’s Long March 2F crew-rated launch vehicle.

This rocket is expected to play a critical role in creation of the Chinese Space Station, and will serve as the launch vehicle for the Tianzhou robotic cargo spacecraft in the meantime. Monday, June 25th was the inaugural launch of the rocket, and after the second stage was spent, it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 04:36 UTC (9:36 p.m. Pacific Time) on Wednesday.

The 2nd stage then began to burn up as it moved across the sky from southwest to northeast, moving at speeds of 20,000 km/h (12,427 mph). It eventually disintegrated after becoming visible all across the south-western US, burning up at an altitude of about 100 km (62.13 mi). At this point, observers reported hearing a large boom, and many were fortunate enough to get the whole thing on video (as you can see from the ones included here).

While discarded space vehicles burn up in the atmosphere all the time, this was one of those rare occasions when the object happened to weight 6 metric tons (6.6 short tons)! We’re just fortunate that space launches are so rigorously planned so as to prevent them from causing accidents and extensive property damage, unlike certain meteorites that show up uninvited (looking at you Chelyabinsk meteor!)

TOTH: Slate

Watch Formation-Flying Chinese ‘Yaogan’ Satellites Slip Silently Through the Stars

Screenshot from Thierry Legault's video of three Yaogan satellites flying near the field of view of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Credit and copyright: Thierry Legault.

The list of amazing things that astrophotographer Thierry Legault captures with his camera keeps growing! This time, it’s a trio of hard-to see, formation-flying Chinese reconnaissance satellites called Yaogan.

“Yaogan triplets are Chinese reconnaissance satellites flying at 1,100 km in groups of 3, separated by about 100km (5°),” Legault explained to Universe Today.

In this video are two different ‘triplets’ of these satellites taken with Legault’s Sony A7s. First you’ll see the Yoagan 16 A/B/C passing through the sky field that includes M31, the Pleiades, the Hyades, the Orion nebula. Second is Yaogan 20 A/B/C passing over M31 just before disappearing in the shadow of the Earth.

“The magnitude of Yaogans is about 5, barely visible to the naked eye,” Legault said via email. “But sometimes they flare, as you can see in the beginning of the movie.”

The fine tracking Legault did of these objects is incredible, along with the detail of the stars and deep-sky objects. ?

Legault used Calsky – his go-to source for observing – to calculate where he would need to be to see these satellites crossing near the famous deep-sky objects. He drove about 100 km west of his home in Paris to capture this unique video.

According to Robert Christy at zarya.info, the Yaogan satellites are imaging satellites “with a government or military purpose. Some seem to carry optical payloads and others carry radar. There are also some launches into orbits very like the US NOSS satellites.”

Christy lists the tasks of these satellites as imaging for remote sensing for military or government photo-reconnaissance including for “natural resources surveys and, possibly, intelligence gathering. Specific tasks include land survey, crop yield assessment, and input to disaster monitoring and prevention plans.”

There have been 24 launches of these satellites since 2006, with one launching as recently as November 20, 2014. Four of the launches were for “triplets” of these satellites.

Find out more about these satellites at zarya.info.

As always, you can see more of Legault’s find astrophotgraphy at his website.
See our review of his newly translated book “Astrophotography” here.