Petar Petrov/AP

Virginia Fireball Not Caused by Space Junk

April 01, 2009 11:30 AM
by Denis Cummings
A fireball spotted over Virginia that was originally believed to be caused by falling space junk from a Russian rocket is now believed to be a meteor.

Mysterious Boom Caused by Meteor

Many residents near Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va., witnessed a mysterious flash of light and heard a loud boom Sunday night. On Monday, Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory said there was more than a 99 percent chance the boom was caused by debris from the Russian Soyuz rocket re-entering the atmosphere.

However, many experts believed that the object, which appeared to witnesses for just a few seconds, moved too slowly to be space junk. On Tuesday the U.S. Strategic Command reported that the rocket actually re-entered over Taiwan, confirming that the fireball was not a piece from the rocket.

It is likely that the object was actually a meteor, known also as a bolide; “I’m confident that this was a meteoric event,” Bill Cooke of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center told Tuesday.

The confusion over the event is similar to what followed the on-camera sighting of a fireball over Texas in mid-February. Many initial reports speculated that the object was a piece of debris from the collision of two satellites that occurred two days before. Closer examination of the fireball indicated that it was a meteor, and two University of North Texas astronomers later found meteorite pieces along the fireball’s path.

Background: Space junk

The concerns over falling space junk come as space is becoming increasing cluttered with rocket boosters, nut and bolts, fragments from exploded spacecraft, paint chips and assorted other objects. These objects pose a threat to astronauts and active satellites and spacecraft.

There are over 10,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters, which are being tracked by space agencies. There are an estimated 600,000 pieces between 1 and 10 centimeters, which are not tracked, and possibly millions more that are less than a centimeter.

The danger of space debris was exhibited earlier this month when astronauts at an international space station were forced into an escape capsule as space junk passed within three miles of the station.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell called it “yet another warning shot that we really have to do something about space debris now … on an international level.” Agencies have been looking for a cost-effective way to clean up space junk; the European Space Agency is currently holding a conference to discuss the matter.

Space junk poses little threat to people on Earth, though there have been high-profile cases of debris crashing onto land. The most notable incident occurred in 1979, when pieces of the satellite Skylab landed in largely uninhabited areas of Australia.

“Most objects that re-enter the Earth's atmosphere burn-up or re-enter over water,” said Michael Birmingham of the U.S. Space Command to in 2000. “Since the space surveillance mission began, almost 17,000 objects that we track re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Catastrophic re-entries such as Skylab are rare and the exception.”

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Reference: Astronomy guide


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