If you live in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, you may have seen a strange meteor streaking across the sky Thursday night (March 25). But that was no chunk of asteroid or comet — it was likely SpaceX (opens in new tab) debris falling and burning up in Earth's atmosphere, experts say.
On March 4, SpaceX launched a batch of 60 Starlink (opens in new tab) internet satellites to orbit aboard a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket (opens in new tab). Experts think the re-entering upper stage of that rocket is what caused last night's sky show, which speckled the sky with bright glowing dots that moved across the sky. Local reports pegged the event at just after midnight EDT (0400 GMT) on Friday (March 26), or about 9 p.m. local time Thursday on the U.S. West Coast.
"While we await further confirmation on the details, here's the unofficial information we have so far. The widely reported bright objects in the sky were the debris from a Falcon 9 rocket 2nd stage that did not successfully have a deorbit burn," the National Weather Service (NWS) Seattle tweeted (opens in new tab). They added (opens in new tab) in a follow up tweet that "there are NO expected impacts on the ground in our region at this time."
Related: SpaceX's Starlink satellite megaconstellation launches in photos (opens in new tab)
Some people on social media (opens in new tab)have excitedly shared videos and photos of the event, referring to the falling debris as a possible meteor shower, "shooting star" or comet. Some have even cited extraterrestrial activity as the cause, though no experts have validated that possibility.
I’ve NEVER seen a meteor shower like this! Freaky when you don’t know what it is 😲😬 @fox12oregon @KATUNews pic.twitter.com/RwMGSf2IRjMarch 26, 2021
Rather, experts agree that this event was almost certainly created by falling, human-made debris.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and satellite tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, shared that the bright spots seen are falling SpaceX debris.
The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now reentering after 22 days in orbit. Its reentry was observed from the Seattle area at about 0400 UTC Mar 26. pic.twitter.com/FQrBrUoBHhMarch 26, 2021
"The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now re-entering after 22 days in orbit," McDowell tweeted (opens in new tab). A deorbit burn happens when a spacecraft fires its thrusters to slow down and start descending toward annihilation in Earth's atmosphere.
The goal of such burns is to get rid of a piece of space hardware quickly when its job is done, to keep it from becoming orbital debris (opens in new tab).
McDowell also shared some "fun facts" about debris burn-up like this on Twitter (opens in new tab), adding that debris breakup like we saw last night happens about 40 miles (60 kilometers) above the ground, far above where airplanes fly.
He also noted that this is the 14th piece of space debris with a mass over one ton to reenter Earth's atmosphere so far this year, which equates to about one big piece of falling space junk per week.
Another fun debris fact: this is the 14th piece of space junk with a mass over one tonne that has reentered since Jan 1st this year.March 26, 2021
The NWS in Seattle added on Twitter that it's likely that this event was caused by the burn-up of human-made objects in Earth's atmosphere, because meteors or other natural objects would likely be moving much faster.
While human-made objects often orbit Earth at speeds around 17,500 mph (28,163 km/h), meteors can reach speeds at the top of our atmosphere over 45,000 mph (72,420 km/h), according to NWS Seattle (opens in new tab).
Email Chelsea Gohd at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.