Suspected space junk from satellite launch puts on light show over southern B.C.

A cluster of bright, falling lights lit up the skies over B.C.’s South Coast and much of the U.S. Pacific Northwest on Thursday night, the suspected result of rocket debris burning up as it re-entered the atmosphere.

Videos of the phenomenon were posted on social media by residents of the Seattle area, Oregon and B.C.

On Vancouver Island, the Saanich Fire Department tweeted that it had “received reports of flames in the sky” from multiple callers.

“We are much better at investigating fires on earth. The cause of this fire in the sky is still under investigation,” the fire department joked.

Rocket debris from satellite launch puts on light show over West Coast

3 days ago0:57Observers in B.C., Washington state and Oregon captured what is believed to be the remains of a rocket used by SpaceX. 0:57

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, tweeted that the cause appeared to be the remains of the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket used by SpaceX to launch a satellite earlier this month.

The U.S. National Weather Service in Seattle has said there is not expected to be any impact on the ground.

So what went wrong?

Moriba Jah, an associate professor in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, says the rocket was supposed to “slow itself down in [a] calculated way to force it to re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere.”

Because that controlled, scheduled, manoeuvre did not happen, it was left to mother nature to clean it up which is unpredictable.

Jah said larger objects are more likely to not fully burn up in the atmosphere, especially if the angle of reentry is not steep enough.

 “There’s so much uncertainty when things hit the atmosphere. Given that most of the earth is covered by water and the largest body of that is the Pacific, things that survive reentry, by and large, basically pollute the ocean,” he said.

Jah added that there’s no way to really predict where the debris and decaying materials from rockets might re-enter.  (Reuters)

Events like these educate the public on the realities of doing business in space and Jah says it’s surprising that equipment doesn’t fail more often.

“The business of conducting space operations, by and large, it’s actually quite successful and these things do happen and it’s statistical. You could just say that these unscheduled events are part of the statistics,” he added.

According to him, there are currently over 26,000 anthropogenic objects in space, of which about 3,500 are currently serving a purpose while everything else is garbage. 

 A lot of the satellites that are put into earth’s orbits are orbiting above the earth’s space stations. So whenever they die, they rain down on the space stations, Jah said. 

But is it possible to predict these events beforehand?

Jah says that the U.S. Space Command have developed and maintained a catalogue of the anthropogenic space objects and try their best to predict when two of these objects might come close to each other to collide, and warn people.

The debris falling from the sky Thursday night was somewhat expected because it had been up for a couple of weeks, slowly decaying in its orbit.

“It’s predictable that the thing is going to decay but exactly how and where will the debris … spread, and what might re-enter and survive, versus what not, those are the things that are the unknown,” he said.

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