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SpaceX Falcon 9 upper stage breaks up in Earth's atmosphere, 5 years after launch

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to send the EchoStar 23 satellite into orbit. The was expected to be SpaceX's last flight that would throw away the Falcon 9 first stage.
(Image credit: SpaceX)

A SpaceX rocket's upper stage appears to have broken up safely over Mexico, five years after sending a satellite into space.

Local reports on Twitter indicated that a part of the Falcon 9 that sent the Echostar 23 mission aloft in March 2017 met its demise Saturday (Feb. 6) after falling into the Earth's atmosphere.

"Tonight a 'meteorite' has been seen falling over northern Mexico," Spanish-language feed Frontera Espacial tweeted along with a video showing the disintegrating second stage. 

A meteorite is a space rock that has made it all the way through the atmosphere and landed on the ground, although in this case the rocket stage completely disintegrated high above Earth, according to Frontera, so it wasn't really a meteorite. And as you can see below, this Twitter feed was just one of several that spotted the disintegrating rocket.

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Neither SpaceX nor its founder, Elon Musk, commented on the Falcon 9's disintegration on Twitter. It's very normal for rocket stages to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, however, so it may be that neither saw the need to discuss the matter.

The reentry of the Falcon 9's upper stage was confirmed on the Aerospace Corporation's website, which tracks upcoming reentries of satellites and space vehicles.

Echostar 23, which that Falcon 9 stage helped put into space, was launched to geostationary transfer orbit some 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers) above Earth and was initially targeted for an orbital position above the equator at 45 degrees west longitude. 

Its initial mission was to provide broadcast, internet and other communications services to Brazil. The satellite is operational and expected to last for at least another decade, according to NASA.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.