On Friday evening, residents of Northern California were treated to a spectacular light show as flaming space debris re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. According to the Associated Press, abandoned communication equipment from the International Space Station (ISS) was the source of the blazing streaks seen across the night sky.
Jaime Hernandez, who was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with friends in Sacramento, saw the bright streaks of light in the sky. Curious about what he was witnessing, he recorded the phenomenon and shared it on Instagram. “Mainly, we were in shock, but amazed that we got to witness it. None of us had ever seen anything like it” Hernandez said. The brewery also posted the video, describing it as “Crazy Fireworks” and adding the hashtag #UFO.
Explanation from Experts
But the streaks of light were not caused by aliens. Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explains that chunks of space debris were releasing a lot of energy while traveling at high speeds in the atmosphere.
The light show was caused by a 683-pound antenna called the Inter-orbit Communication System-Exposed Facility. The antenna was transported to the ISS on a shuttle flight in 2009 and was decommissioned by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2017. The ISS crew jettisoned the equipment into orbit in 2020, and it has been circling the Earth ever since.
The flaming space debris re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere in what is known as an uncontrolled re-entry. This means that the burnt-up bits of equipment landed randomly. The debris is thought to have touched down somewhere around Yosemite National Park, where it will likely blend in with other non-space litter.
The issue of space debris is becoming increasingly problematic, with trillions of pieces of “orbital debris” traveling at high speeds in the Earth’s vicinity. NASA reports that the amount of space junk is growing, and even tiny fragments of debris can damage a spacecraft or satellite upon impact.
It is anticipated that more than 50,000 new satellites will be launched and start circling the Earth by the year 2030, which leads experts to believe that the issue will only get worse in the years to come.
#WATCH: Mysterious streaks of light seen in the sky over California.
What do you think it is? pic.twitter.com/mVEhMH26hd
— Straightouttathe6ixtv (@sot6ixtv) March 19, 2023
As a consequence of this, a number of researchers and influential figures in the industry are advocating for the creation of a legally binding international treaty that would require satellite manufacturers and users to clean up their debris and dispose of space hardware in a responsible manner once they have finished using it.
Melissa Quinn, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, the first horizontal launch site in the United Kingdom, states that “humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviors in space now, not later.”