Jeff Watters and his friends weren’t sure what to make of the streaks of light that streaked across the Sacramento night sky on Friday night.
About seven meteor-like flares appeared to go off around 9:30 p.m., diverting attention from the ongoing St. Patrick’s Day revelry, as evidenced by video Watters took.
“It seemed crazy,” Watters said in a written statement to The Times. “We thought maybe it was something from Starlink or SpaceX or something, but that didn’t really make sense.”
The spectacle, it turns out, was created by burning “orbital debris” re-entering Earth’s atmosphere over northern California, after spending years orbiting Earth since being jettisoned from the International Space Station in 2020, according to the astronomer from the Smithsonian Jonathan McDowell.
“We knew this object would come back in sometime this weekend, but we didn’t know exactly when,” McDowell said, or where, for that matter.
Orbiting at a speed of 17,000 mph, such “space junkIt’s difficult to track precisely, he said, which means that quite often this type of debris, the aftermath of launches or the remnants of space exploration, will return to the atmosphere in what’s known as an “uncontrolled re-entry.” . But, she said, the US Space Force tracks thousands of such items, so when the dazzling display was spotted in the skies Friday from sacrament to ash treehe was able to match the event to space debris.
“The light you’re seeing is kinetic energy being dissipated,” McDowell said. “It gets so hot that it melts and breaks.”
This specific piece of equipment was a 683-pound communications device launched by Japan in 2009 and attached to the exterior of the International Space Station, McDowell said. It transmitted information to Earth for about eight years, but became obsolete when its coordinating satellite was retired. In 2020, ISS officials scrapped the device from the space station, beginning its years-long journey back to Earth, he said.
McDowell thought that the pieces of molten equipment seen in Northern California likely fell near Yosemite National Park.
Although the phenomenon caused amazement and amazement in Northern California, McDowell noted that there were at least two other pieces of space debris that have also reentered the atmosphere in recent days, albeit in places that likely went unnoticed.
“I get a report like this from somewhere in the world every two months,” he said. “They are rare anywhere, but they are common on a global scale.”
More than 200 pieces of space junk re-enter the atmosphere each year, according to the US. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, though many burn and completely disintegrate upon reentry, and most fall unseen into the ocean.
“Every day, the Space Force tracks more than 20,000 pieces in orbit around Earth,” McDowell said, though he noted that about 7,000 of those are working satellites. “This object is just one of those 20,000 that re-entered this weekend and re-entered at a time and place where it was seen by many people.”
as the prevalence of such increases in space junk, McDowell said the chances that such debris could fall dangerously, striking people or critical infrastructure, are also increased, though those chances remain low. He said he would like to see more safety precautions taken by crews releasing such equipment, especially when the debris could include larger pieces.
China has been criticized for launches of a new rocket in which its propellant has hurtled uncontrollably towards Earth. The rocket propellant has so far landed without incidentBut experts worry that this is not always the case.
“Every time they… launch one of these, it’s kind of orbital roulette,” McDowell said. “The odds are in his favor, but not so much that I don’t worry.”
There are ways to control and plan how objects re-enter the atmosphere, which are used by many teams around the world.