Social media was ablaze after a streak of light burst across the night sky late on Wednesday, sparking questions as to its origins. It turned out what was dubbed the “Utah meteor” was, in fact, the remains of a Chinese rocket returning home to Earth.
The glowing trail was spotted in Nevada and Utah and right across California, with people asking if it was a meteor, fireball, or a satellite returning to Earth. The following video was taken in Draper, Utah, with people from as far afield as San Diego responding they had seen the same sight.
— Connor Johnson (@24cdawg) July 28, 2016
NBC Los Angeles quoted Ed Krupp, director of Griffith Observatory, as saying of the Utah meteor, “Anytime you have a report of a luminous object, it’s a fair bet it’s a natural event.”
“It’s likely space debris or a meteor produced by interplanetary debris.”
Krupp went on to explain that it wasn’t what the object was composed of that caused the blaze of light, but rather what the atmosphere around it was doing.
“Typically a small pebble that enters the Earth’s atmosphere at that high altitude and is heated up by the friction that it encounters will become so hot that it will in fact cause the air around it to glow — kind of a tube of glowing air — maybe as much as 10 miles in diameter.”
At the time, Nellis Air Force Base had reportedly said it was a meteor breaking up.
Nellis Air Force Base officials confirm the light in the sky was a meteor breaking up. Photo: Erika Weeks. pic.twitter.com/zIg83IN54Z
— KTNV Action News (@KTNV) July 28, 2016
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told the Los Angeles Times that the Utah meteor spotted by many was the debris from a Chinese rocket launched on June 25.
McDowell based his information on tracking data provided by the Joint Space Operations Center, saying what he dubbed the Long March 7 rocket had reentered the atmosphere at around 9:40 p.m. over Utah.
— Jeff Ranieri (@JeffRanieri) July 28, 2016
According to McDowell, the launch of the Chinese rocket last month heralded a new era for China. He said after a month in low orbit, the rocket reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of around 18,000 mph.
McDowell added that when those on the ground saw the trail of light across the sky, the rocket was probably around 50 miles above the Earth’s surface.
— Clint Peterson (@Clintonite33) July 28, 2016
Adding that the main body of the rocket probably melted, McDowell said a few small pieces of metal might eventually reach the ground.
Many had reportedly thought the “Utah meteor” was part of a meteor shower, as it did coincide with the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which usually peaks around July 28. However, according to the American Meteorogical Society, these meteors usually lack “persistent trains and fireballs.”
As for McDowell, he dismissed the claim of a meteor shower outright, saying meteors usually move much faster, and he confirmed they do not carry a trail of debris with them.
Don Yeomans, manager for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, said events like this occur almost nightly somewhere on Earth, but he said they are not usually spotted over populated areas.
McDowell agreed with the statement, saying that although reentry is common, dramatic visibility like the current incident is not.
“Something this big enters in an uncontrolled way probably once a month,” McDowell said. “Mostly they fall into the ocean — the Earth is a big place. The chance that you get one at night, over the U.S. at time when people look at the sky — it is relatively low.”
The following video was reportedly taken from the International Space Station prior to the rocket breaking apart – however it turns out to be a rather “tongue-in-cheek” representation:
— Storm and Sky (@thestormandsky) July 28, 2016
Reportedly there was a similar incident back in late December 2015, when debris from a Russian rocket lit the skies over the western U.S. as it returned into Earth’s atmosphere.