Apparent rocket debris lights up night sky over Pacific Northwest

A streak of light in the night sky over much of the Pacific Northwest Thursday spurred plenty of speculation among earthlings. Turns out its origin was apparently very earthly: space junk re-entering the atmosphere.

As CBS Portland, Oregon affiliate KOIN-TV put it, “Was that a meteor? Space junk? Aliens? Probably not. … Whatever it was, it lit up the night sky over Oregon just after 9 p.m. … drawing gasps of wonder and many posts to social media.

“The sight was summed up by @kaallori: “Meteor? I don’t know what that was, but it was spectacular.'”

CBS Seattle affiliate KIRO-TV said it first appeared to be a meteor shower.

But KIRO Chief Meteorologist Morgan Palmer said, “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!”

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

Andrew Dassonville, @theandrewda, captured it over St. Helens, Oregon, near Portland:

Meteor streaking over St. Helens, Oregon near Portland about 30 minutes ago pic.twitter.com/QVgco04VV6

Viewers called KIRO to report what they were seeing. They also called the National Weather Service.

Then, the service’s Seattle office tweeted the likely explanation, saying, “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.”

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.

Astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted it was from a March 4 SpaceX launch of Starlink satellites.

Jim Todd, of the The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland told KOIN it was pretty exciting that so many people spotted it. “Everyone around the Pacific Northwest got to see it,” he said.

He’s not sure if any of the debris made it to the ground. “Could there be debris? Certainly. But it was burning up.”

KIRO reported that weather service officials said they hadn’t heard of any impacts across western Washington.

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