It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s — pieces of a SpaceX rocket?
The unidentified falling objects that lit up the night sky from Oregon to Canada on Thursday appear to be Falcon 9 debris from a launch three weeks ago.
Pacific Northwest skygazers noticed brilliant streaks of light slowly raining down overhead shortly before 9 p.m. local time, and midnight ET on Thursday. Several posted photos and videos of the celestial spectacle, marveling over whether it was a meteor shower, or worrying whether it was something more sinister, like an aviation accident.
So what was it?
The unofficial explanation from astronomers and meteorologists is that it was harmless rocket debris. SpaceX, which was founded by Tesla
CEO Elon Musk, launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida a little more than three weeks ago to carry 60 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit. It appears the rocket’s top end or second stage — which should re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up within an orbit or two of launching — didn’t complete its de-orbit burn as expected.
“It’s just been waiting to fall for the last three weeks, and we got lucky and it came right over head,” astronomer James Davenport from the University of Washington told local NBC affiliate KINGS.
Fellow astronomer Jonathan McDowell at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics also identified it as debris from the Falcon 9 rocket. He tweeted that it “failed to make a deorbit burn and is now reentering after 22 days in orbit,” noting that “its re-entry was observed from the Seattle area.”
This led many followers to share their own footage of the unexpected light show in a growing thread beneath his post. Many described it as “amazing,” although some expressed early concern that it was a more dire incident such as a plane exploding.
The National Weather Service Seattle also identified the debris as likely being from the Falcon 9 rocket second stage, assuring followers on Twitter that “there are no expected impacts on the ground in our region at this time.”
Check out some more of the breathtaking videos below.
SpaceX has not claimed responsibility for the unexpected light show, and reps from NASA’s SpaceX media relations department were not immediately available for comment.