Falling SpaceX debris puts on a light show in the sky

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 debris falling and burning up in Earth's atmosphere, experts say. 

On March 4, SpaceX launched a batch of 60 Starlink internet satellites to orbit aboard a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket. 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. They added 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

SpaceX's Starlink 17 mission lifts off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on March 4, 2021. Debris from the launch fell back to Earth on March 25. (Image credit: SpaceX)

Some people on social media 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.

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 re-entering after 22 days in orbit," McDowell tweeted. 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

McDowell also shared some "fun facts" about debris burn-up like this on Twitter, 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. 

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

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.