U.S. defense officials have said that an “unidentified” fireball that was seen streaking across the skies over three western states — Arizona, California, and Nevada — on Tuesday, December 22, 2015, was, in fact, Russian space debris.
The bright light, according to military authorities, was not a meteor or UFO as some had speculated, but space junk or debris from a Russian rocket re-entering the atmosphere.
The mysterious bright light, seen whizzing across the sky at about 7 p.m. for about 10 minutes, was reported by hundreds of residents of Arizona, Nevada, and California on social media.
It was spotted over Las Vegas and in Southern California and as far north as Sacramento and Bakersfield.
— Andy McEldowney (@a_mceldowney) December 23, 2015
— Kolbe Gillette (@TheRealKolbabe) December 23, 2015
— D. Wilson (@ButteWxSpotter) December 23, 2015
Many residents described it as a “streaking fireball” with visible debris falling from it as it whizzed across the evening sky.
“Big big #fireball moved in the sky very slow with a #streak over Ventura.”
“Weird flaming streak of debris in the sky south of Las Vegas just after 6PM. Anyone else see it?”
“Giant fireball in the sky over Las Vegas. Has Magical Forest visitors asking if it was part of the show. Ah NO!”
“Who else just saw this s**t? Light just popped in the sky split up and into 3 and disappeared.”
“It an alien invasion! Quick someone call Jeff Goldblum!”
“The good ole’ Russians. Looked like it was going a bit slow for a meteor.”
“Donald Trump has (finally) had a bright idea. This was so unusual it was bright enough to light up the night sky.”
But later, a U.S. Strategic Command spokesperson, Julie Ziegenhorn, told NBC News that the bright light or fireball was caused by a Russian SL-4 rocket booster that re-entered the atmosphere “somewhere over Arizona” at about 7:08 p.m. MT (9:08 p.m. ET) after it was launched from Russia on Monday, December 21, 2015.
Lt. Colonel Martin O’Donnell with the U.S. Strategic Command also told NBC News that the light was caused by “Russian space debris.”
Lt. Colonel O’Donnell said the rocket debris was one of 16,000 objects that the Joint Space Operation Center at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California had been tracking. He added that further details about the rocket body could be obtained from the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Before the statement by the U.S. defense authorities, astronomers had speculated that it could be a meteor. Many social media users shared videos and photos, and before military authorities issued a statement, speculation flourished online.
Dawg who else just saw this shit?!?!?!?!?! Light just popped in the sky split up and into 3 and disappeared 😳👽 pic.twitter.com/We9ppAGnl7
— Only 6’11 〽️ (@SkyBoy_Q) December 23, 2015
— Christopher Boyd (@CJBear71) December 23, 2015
— Chris Cribbs (@macdaddycrabby) December 23, 2015
Some said it was a shooting star or a meteor. Others thought it was a missile, and some said it was a UFO. A few suggested at the time that it could be space debris making a re-entry.
The Huffington Post speculated tongue-in-cheek that it could be Santa making a re-entry.
Some social media users had suggested it could be part of the Geminid meteor shower, which began on December 4. But astronomers quickly pointed out that the Geminid meteor shower was expected to end on December 17 after peaking on December 13.
CBS Los Angeles noted that some astronomers had suggested it could be part of the Ursids meteor shower expected to peak on Tuesday.
Aviation officials and meteorologists contacted by news reporters before defense authorities issued a statement were uncertain. But some noted the similarity to the bright light object sighted over California in November that turned out to be an unannounced missile test by the U.S. Navy. Military authorities said at the time that it was an unarmed Trident II (D5) fired from off the coast of Southern California from the ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky.
[Photo By Airman 1st Class Ian Dudley/U.S. Air Force via AP]