Oregonians and residents throughout the Pacific Northwest were treated to a rare light show Thursday night, March 25, after thousands of witnesses saw a shower of bright objects streak across the sky shortly after 9 p.m.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell at the Center for Astrophysics tweeted that it came from the Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on March 4, which was later confirmed by Jim Todd, director of space science education at OMSI.
"It re-entered the atmosphere 22 days later, and that's exactly what we saw tonight," Todd said in an interview with KGW. "Once I got the video, my first reaction was that it was a manmade object that entered the Earth's atmosphere."
The cascade of light lasted for several seconds, giving witnesses plenty of opportunity to take photographs and video. That length of time was also an indicator that the falling object was not a meteor, which wouldn't have been visible for nearly as long before burning up, Todd said.
"The critical thing was how long it lasts," Todd said. "The way it was breaking apart into little pieces, like sparkles, and then it had a boom. The boom was caused by the pressure of breaking the sound barrier."
Todd speculated that the debris was "well over 60 miles above us," but was he unsure if the particles would reach the surface of the Earth.
"It was pretty high up, and it looked like quite a few of the materials were burning up in the atmosphere. It's still so early, and I can't confirm if the debris entered the earth on the surface. We may find some, but we hope it did not do any property damage."
The Falcon 9 rocket launch distributed a batch of 60 Starlink satellites into orbit earlier in the month from Cape Canaveral, Florida, via a two-stage rocket. The first stage consists of nine engines designed to propel the rocket off the ground, while the second stage — which was the one seen Thursday night — is a single engine that help steer it into a parking orbit.
It was the sixth mission for SpaceX in 2021 and the company's 20th Starlink mission. SpaceX has since launched three more missions in March and is scheduled for another delivery of satellites into orbit in early April.
SpaceX launched its first Falcon 1 rocket on March 24, 2006, and has made 120 launches in the past 15 years.
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