Here's What Really Caused Last Night's Mysterious Fireballs

Photo: Courtesy YouTube/BNO News.
Last night, people living in Utah, California, and Nevada saw something very weird in the sky: bright, fireball-like flashes lighting up the darkness.

Everyone took to Twitter to ask first, if anyone else was seeing the insane light show, and second, what the hell was causing it.

Initially, speculation centered on a meteor shower, which can produce similar sparks of light. But the Delta Aquaria meteor shower isn't set to peak until tonight and, as astronomer Phil Plait tweeted in reply, last night's "fireballs" were moving too slowly to be meteors. Meteors tend to travel so fast that they look like shooting stars.
Photo: Courtesy Twitter/@dtsaltlakecity.

So, the question remained. What was it?

Jonathan McDowell, PhD, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, discovered the answer. The fireballs were actually "space junk" from a Chinese rocket that launched in late June, McDowell told Refinery29.

"[The rocket] was abandoned in low orbit around the Earth, circling the planet every 90 minutes," McDowell explained via email. "A month's worth of friction with the upper atmosphere lowered its orbit gradually, and this morning it got low enough to melt and disintegrate, creating the bright, visible chain of fiery chunks people saw."

According to McDowell, the expected timing of the space junk's re-entry perfectly coincided with the moment when people saw flashes of light, making it clear that this was no meteor shower.

However, if you do want to catch the action of tonight's light show (a real meteor shower), just head outdoors after midnight. Sky and Telescope predicts that 2 a.m. local time is the sweet spot for seeing the lights at their brightest.

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