Space & Cosmos

Those Mystery Lights Above Seattle and Portland? They Weren’t Meteors.

The mysterious bright lights streaking across the Pacific Northwest’s night sky on Thursday were not birds, planes or meteors, but debris from a SpaceX rocket.

That’s what astronomers said, at least. But not everyone got the memo, so there was plenty of confusion.

“We have been getting a number of calls about this!” the Portland office of the National Weather Service said on Twitter.

It added moments later — with the caveat that it was no expert in rocket science — that the “widely reported bright objects in the sky” appeared to be debris from a SpaceX rocket that “did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”

A “deorbit burn” is the technical term for when a spaceship rotates tail-first and fires its rockets before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, wrote on Twitter that what people saw in the Pacific Northwest was part of a Falcon 9 rocket that had launched in early March. It was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.

Mr. McDowell wrote that there had been thousands of similar “uncontrolled re-entries” over the years, and that the “space junk” visible over Seattle was the result of a breakup that happened about 30 miles above where airplanes fly.

The Falcon 9 debris falling to earth was “unlikely to be major,” he added, and would most likely fall in the Rocky Mountains near the Canadian border.

SpaceX launches happen regularly in California, Texas and Florida. But people in the Pacific Northwest are not used to seeing rockets, or their debris, in the skies above their homes.

In the Seattle and Portland areas, the spectacle on Thursday night seemed to inspire more delight and bewilderment than fear.

One user marveled at how astronomers on the internet had managed to solve the mystery so quickly, even as a ship remained stuck in the Suez Canal for days.

Others took the opportunity to needle Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, a private rocket company.

“Ummm… just caught this flying over my home in SW Portland,” one Twitter user, Vince LaVecchia, wrote just after 9 p.m. local time. “@elonmusk Your rocket?”

As of 10 p.m. in Portland, the SpaceX Twitter feed had not commented on the Pacific Northwest light show. The company could not be immediately reached for comment.

Around 10:30 p.m., the National Weather Service office in Seattle joined in on the fun.

“A bit anticlimactic given the events of the evening, but the Orion Nebula looks beautiful tonight from our roof,” it wrote. “Yet another satellite managed to photobomb the shot.”

Mike Baker and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.


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