Disintegrating SpaceX Rocket Creates Light Show

Part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has burned up in the Earth’s outer atmosphere over the northwestern United States and western Canada, creating a spectacular show in the night sky over the area.

The burning debris was visible from the Vancouver, British Columbia metropolitan area and across the US states of Washington and Oregon, including Seattle and Portland, according to astronomers and meteorologists.

James Davenport, an astronomer from the University of Washington, told NBC affiliate KING5 the debris created a “really good show”.

Experts said the debris was almost certainly that of the second stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched on 4 March and successfully placed Starlink satellites into orbit.

Image credit: Dan Wright/Twitter

Second stage

The Falcon 9 features a reusable first stage, which employs nine Merlin engines to lift the rocket into space. That stage successfully landed on an ocean-going barge off the coast of Florida.

The rocket’s second stage then uses its single Merlin engine to guide the payload into its desired orbit, after which it is usually directed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

In this case, the second-stage rocket didn’t complete the burn planned to slow its velocity and send it straight into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

As a result, it remained in orbit for a further 22 days until falling to Earth on the night of 26 March, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard – Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

“The Falcon 9 second stage from the March 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now reentering after 22 days in orbit,” he wrote on Twitter.

A Falcon 9 second-stage rocket. Image credit: SpaceX

Space junk

He said large pieces of space junk over one tonne burning up in the atmosphere are not uncommon, with 14 having re-entered so far this year.

“In other words, about one a week. Plus lots more smaller bits of course,” McDowell said.

The Falcon 9 stage’s high rate of speed, about 17,000 mph, combined with headwinds in the upper atmosphere, meant that astronomers didn’t know in advance where it would eventually end up disintegrating.

The Seattle National Weather Service (NWS) noted that the rocket’s speed is much slower than that of meteor showers, which typically move in excess of 45,000 mph.

The rocket was expected to almost entirely burn up in the upper atmosphere, with no expected impact on the ground, meteorologists said.

Image credit: @kaallori/Twitter
Image credit: Cedric Padilla/Twitter
A Falcon 9 rocket. Image credit: SpaceX
Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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