Folks on the West Coast were treated to an awe-inspiring sight Thursday night, with some posting video and leaving baffled comments on social media. Some guessed shooting stars, or maybe even extraterrestrials, but the cause of the brilliant streaks of light in the sky was definitely Earth-bound: A Stage 2 Falcon 9 rocket that failed to make a “deorbit burn.”
The rocket was always supposed to burn up upon re-entry, but it was supposed to do it with a much smaller audience of none over the ocean south of Australia. Instead, folks in northern Oregon and across Washington State got to watch the rocket’s dazzling return after 22 days in space. From King5:
Dr. James Davenport, research assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, confirmed the lights were caused by the Falcon 9 rocket coming back down from orbit. He said the debris was likely about 30 miles into the atmosphere and it was unlikely any substantial pieces would reach the ground.
SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, launched the Falcon 9 stage 2 rocket on March 4.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell at the Center for Astrophysics said the space debris “failed to make a deorbit burn” and was reentering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit.
The Seattle office of the National Weather Service (NWS) tweeted: “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 New York Times described the maneuver that this Falcon 9 rocket biffed on its way back to its home planet:
A “deorbit burn” is the technical term for when a spaceship rotates tail-first and fires its rockets before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
While this wasn’t SpaceX’s plan for the rocket, everything was still safe. The rocket broke up 30 miles above the Earth’s surface, and posed little to no risk to sky-gazers on the ground. The National Weather Service stayed up late letting people know what the situation:
Just remember: Should a piece fall in your yard, you may be allowed to hold on to it.