Lights in the Sky: Meteors, Reentry, or E.T.?

It happens a few times every year.

Last week, we poured our morning coffee, powered up our laptop and phone, and prepared to engage the day.

It wasn’t long before the messages started pouring in. ‘Bright fireball over the U.S. West Coast!’ ‘Major event lights up the California skies!’ and variations thereof. Memories of Chelyabinsk came immediately to mind. A bit of digging around ye ole web revealed video and a few authentic stills from the event.

Now, I always like to look these over myself before reading just what other experts might think. Chelyabinsk immediately grabbed our attention when we saw the first videos recording the shock wave of sound generated by the blast. ‘That sucker was close,’ we realized.

Thursday’s (Wednesday evening Pacific Time) event was less spectacular, but still interesting: the nighttime reentry of the Long March CZ-7 rocket body NORAD ID 2016-042E as it broke up over the U.S. West Coast.

How do we know this, and what do we look for? Is that flash a meteor, bolide, reentry or something stranger still?

Most good meteor footage comes from video recorders that are already up and running when the event occurs, to include security and dashboard cameras, and mobile phones already recording another event, such as a concert or game. How fast can YOU have your smartphone camera out and running? We only recently learned that a quick double tap of the home button will bring the camera on our Android to bear, no unlock needed.

If the event occurs on a Friday or Saturday night with lots of folks out on the town on a clear evening, we might see multiple captures come streaming-in of the event. Just such a fireball was witnessed over the United Kingdom on Friday evening, September 21st, 2012.

Likewise, the fakes are never far behind. We’ve seen ’em all, though you’re welcome to try and stump us. Such ‘meteor-wrongs’ that are commonly circulated as authentic are the reentry of Mir, the 1992 Peekskill meteor, Chelyabinsk, the reentry of Hayabusa, and screen grabs from the flick Armageddon… has anyone ever been fooled by this one?

Meteors generally have a very swift motion, and occur with a greater frequency as the observer rotates forward into the path of Earth’s motion around the Sun past local midnight. Remember, it’s the front of the windshield that picks up the bugs rolling down the highway.

Evening meteors, however, can have a dramatic slow, stately motion across the sky, as they struggle to catch up with the Earth. If they reach a brilliance of magnitude -14 — about one whole magnitude brighter than a Full Moon — said meteor is known as a bolide.

Sometimes, such a fireball can begin shedding fiery debris, in a dramatic display known as a meteor train or meteor precession. Such an event was witnessed over the northeastern United States on July 20th, 1860.

1860 meteor train. Painting by Frederic Church.
The 1860 meteor train. Painting by Frederic Church.

Bright meteors may exhibit colors, hinting at chemical competition. Green for nickel (Not kryptonite!) is typically seen. MeteoriteMen’s Geoffrey Notkin once told us a good rule of thumb: if you hear an accompanying sonic boom a few minutes after seeing a meteor, it’s close. Folks often think what they saw went down behind a hill or tree, when it was actually likely more than 50 miles distant — if it hit the ground at all.

Is that a meteor or a reentry? Reentries move slower still, and will shed lots of debris. Here’s what we’re looking at to judge suspect sighting as a reentry:

Heavens-Above: A great clearing house for satellite passes by location. One great tool is that Heavens-Above will generate a pass map for your location juxtaposed over a sky chart.

Aerospace Corp current reentries: Follows upcoming reentries of larger debris with refined orbits.

Space-Track: The U.S. Joint Space Operations Command’s tracking center for artificial objects in orbit around Earth. Access is available to backyard satellite spotters with free registration. The most accurate source for swiftly evolving orbital elements.

SeeSat-L: This message board always lights up with chatter whenever a possible reentry lights up the skies worldwide.

Stranger Skies

Bizarre sights await the keen eyed. A tumbling rocket booster can often flare in a manner similar to Iridium satellites. Satellites way out in geostationary orbit can flare briefly into naked eye visibility during ‘GEOSat flare season’ near the weeks surrounding either equinox.

Some gamma ray bursts, such as GRB 080319B flare up briefly above magnitude +6 into naked eye visibility from far across the Universe. As of yet, there’s never been a reliable observer sighting of such an event, though it should be possible… probably someone far back in humanity’s history witnessed just such a brief flash in the sky, pausing silently to wonder just what it was…

Kaboom! Image credit: NASA/Pi of the Sky.
Kaboom! Image credit: NASA/Pi of the Sky.

Going further back still, a nearby supernova or gamma-ray burst would leave a ghostly blue afterglow from Cerenkov radiation as it pummeled our atmosphere… though it would be a deadly planet-sterilizing indigo glow, not something you’d want to see. Thankfully, we live in the ‘Era of Mediocrity,’ safely outside of the 25-50 light year ‘kill zone’ for any potential supernova.

And what if those lights in the sky really were the vanguard of an alien invasion force? Well, if they really did land rayguns ablaze on the White House lawn, you’ll read it first here on Universe Today!

Flaming Space Junk Makes Jaws Drop in Australia

“It first looked like a plane with fire coming out of the tail.” — Aaron O.

“I have never seen anything like it. Big, bright and moving gently across sky – slower than a plane, not falling at all but moving across.” — Shannon H.

“Viewed from cockpit of aircraft at 37,000′. Was visible for two or three minutes.” — Landy T.

Flaming plane? Incandescent visitor from the asteroid belt? As the these comments from the AMS Fireball Log attest, the brilliant and s-l-o-w fireball that seared the sky over  southeastern Australia tonight was probably one of the most spectacular displays of re-entering space junk witnessed in recent years.

Ted Molczan, citizen satellite tracker and frequent contributor to the amateur satellite watchers SeeSat-L sitenotes that the timing and appearance almost certainly point to the decay or de-orbiting of the Russian Soyuz 2-1B rocket booster that launched the meteorological satellite Meteor M2 on July 8.


Meteor over New South Wales. Look closely near the end and you’ll see it disintegrate into small pieces.

The magnificent man-made meteor, weighing some 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg), was seen from Melbourne to Sydney across the states of Victoria and New South Wales around 10 p.m. Hundreds of people were stopped in their tracks.  Most noticed how slowly the fireball traveled and how long it continue to burn on the way down.

Spacecraft that reenter from either orbital decay or controlled entry usually break up at altitudes between 45-52 miles (84-72 km) traveling around 17,500 mph (28,000 km/hour) . Compression and friction from the ever-thickening air cause the craft, or in this case, the rocket booster, to slow down and heat up to flaming incandescence just like a hunk of space rock arriving from the asteroid belt. In both cases, we see a brilliant meteor, however manmade debris.

Jan 21, 2001, a Delta 2 third stage, known as a PAM-D, reentered the atmosphere over the Middle East. The titanium motor casing, weighing about 70 kg, landed in Saudi Arabia about 240 km from the capital of Riyadh. Credit: NASA, Orbital Debris Program Office
A Delta 2 third stage, known as a PAM-D, reentered the atmosphere over the Middle East on Jan. 21, 2001. The titanium motor casing, weighing about 154 lbs. (70 kg), landed in Saudi Arabia about 150 miles from the capital of Riyadh. Credit: NASA, Orbital Debris Program Office

Occasional meteoroids break apart in the atmosphere and scatter meteorites just as pieces of occasional satellites, especially large, heavy craft, can survive the plunge and land intact –  if a tad toasted.  Whether anything remains of Russian rocket stage or where exactly it fell is still unknown. Here are a few more photos of successful space junk arrivals.

The only person to be hit by manmade space debris was Lottie Williams in 1997.  She was unharmed. Credit: Tulsa World
The only person to be hit by manmade space debris was Lottie Williams in 1997. She was unharmed. Credit: Tulsa World

Reportedly, only one person has been struck by satellite debris. In 1997 Lottie Williams of Tulsa, Oklahoma was hit on the shoulder while walking by a small, twisted piece of metal weighing as much as a crushed soda can. It was traced back to the tank of a Delta II rocket that launched a satellite in 1996. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone else gets hit, but the odds aren’t great. More likely, you’ll see what alarmed and delighted so many southeastern Australians Thursday night: a grand show of disintegration.

Did a Piece of Mir Really Land in Massachusetts?

We love a good space debris mystery. Hey, who doesn’t, right?  Regular readers of Universe Today know that it’s a shooting gallery out there, from meteor fireballs caught on dashboard cams to rogue space junk reentries lighting up our skies. 

But an unusual story that made its rounds across the internet this past weekend caught our attention. What at first glance was a simple “Man finds space rock” story morphed into an extraordinary claim, which, in the words of the late great Carl Sagan, “demand extraordinary evidence.”

The find was made by Phil Green of Amesbury, Massachusetts. Mr. Green was searching the local riverbed for arrowheads when he came across the unusual find. The black pitted rock immediately struck him as something bizarre.  It didn’t register as metallic to his metal detector, but Mr. Green kept it in his backyard for about five years until it was noticed by a friend.

“I didn’t really think much of it, and then a fellow came over, saw it and said that’s a meteor,” Green told local reporters.

From here, the story takes a strange turn. Green told local reporters that the rock was sent off for analysis, only to be returned to him just a few weeks ago. The analysis confirmed that the rock was indeed from space… sort of. It also stated that the vitreous material “shows a composition similar to that used in ballast by the Soviet space program starting in the mid-1980s.”

And the word was out. The media quickly ran with the “Man finds a piece of Mir” story.

There are just a few problems with the tale. Mir reentered in 2001, six years before the 2007. A few articles do bother to note this, mentioning that Mir ended its career in the “so-called spacecraft cemetery of the southern Pacific Ocean,” about as far away from Massachusetts as you can get.

A few articles do also mention the possibility of a reentry of a Progress resupply vehicle being a potential source, or perhaps an unrelated Russian space vehicle.

But there seems to be a potential problem of the certification. Several articles state that the piece of debris coming from Mir was “confirmed by NASA.” However, Universe Today contacted NASA Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris Nicholas L. Johnson and NASA Headquarters official Joshua Buck, who both told us that no such NASA validation exists. Mr. Johnson went on to tell Universe Today that, “The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office has not been presented with any claim regarding debris from the Mir space station,” adding “I can tell you that it is not possible for debris from the Mir reentry to have landed in the U.S.”

A name that occasionally turns up in reports online as validating the find (withheld by request) also tells Universe Today that they had nothing to do with the discovery. Mr. Green or the original validation source  have thus far been unavailable for comment.

We did uncover two documented reentries that occurred over the general region over the last few decades. One is the reentry of Mir-R 1986-017B (The rocket booster that launched the core module of Mir) seen from a trans-Atlantic airliner on February 24th 1986 about 500 kilometres off of the east coast of Newfoundland. Another possible suspect is the June 26/27th 2004 reentry of a SL-12 auxiliary rocket motor with the NORAD ID 1992-088E, seen to the west from New Jersey to Ontario.

Like the International Space Station, Mir was placed in a 51.6° inclined orbit. This made it accessible from the Baikonur Cosmodrome as well as visits from the U.S. Space Shuttle. Payloads going to and from the station would cover an identical ground track ranging from 51.6° north to south latitude.

The story is also reminiscent of the reentry of debris from Sputnik 4, which struck a small town in Wisconsin in 1962. This was analyzed by mineralogist Ursula Marvin and confirmed to be of Russian origin.

A Progress spacecraft inbound for docking with the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).
A Progress spacecraft inbound for docking with the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA).

Probably the biggest question in our minds is: what links the object back to an errant Russian spacecraft? What do they use for ballast, anyhow? How did they arrive at the often quoted “85% certainty?” of the object’s origin?

Still, the find does look like something interesting. The pitting and the melted fusion crust are all reminiscent of reentry. We’ll keep researching this story, and for the time being we’ll leave it up to you, the diligent and insightful readers of Universe Today, to make up your own minds on this strange and interesting tale.