The bright lights hurtling across the sky in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday were made by burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket falling back to Earth.
The National Weather Service Seattle later posted on Twitter that the bright objects were debris from one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets “that did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”
A “deorbit burn” is when a rocket flips tail-first and fires its engines, to allow it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA.
— Genevieve Reaume (@GenevieveReaume) March 26, 2021
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, posted on Twitter that the objects streaking across the Pacific Northwest were the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 4. The debris was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.
The falling debris is “unlikely to be major,” he tweeted, and “would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.”
McDowell said in a separate tweet that this is the 14th piece of space junk weighing over one tonne that had come back down to Earth since January 1.
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/FQrBrUoBHh
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 26, 2021
SpaceX regularly launches rockets from sites in California, Florida and Texas.
The rocket launch on March 4, from which McDowell said the debris came from, blasted 60 satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s 20th Starlink mission. It was SpaceX’s sixth Starlink launch of 2021.
The satellites were adding to a rapidly expanding constellation of satellites beaming the internet down to Earth. Currently, there are around 1,300 Starlink satellites in orbit, and the company wants to eventually launch up to 42,000.
Here are some of the scenes that people in the Pacific NW witnessed on Thursday:
Meteor streaking over St. Helens, Oregon near Portland about 30 minutes ago pic.twitter.com/QVgco04VV6
— Andrew Dassonville (@theandrewda) March 26, 2021
The relatively slow speed of breakup looks to me to probably be a satellite, rocket part, space junk, something like that breaking up on reentry. Something that was in earth orbit. Meteors would generally be moving much faster as they burn up. But we’ll see! https://t.co/jaTVB55HWS
— Morgan Palmer (@MorganKIRO7) March 26, 2021
Ummm… just caught this flying over my home in SW Portland. pic.twitter.com/CvQJwvWsyj
— Vince LaVecchia (@vincelavecchia) March 26, 2021