A piece of debris from a Russian rocket appears to have burned up in the skies of Abu Dhabi, leaving confusion as to what caused the light show.
The debris appeared like a meteor in the night sky, with trails of light occurring above Abu Dhabi last night. Various users took to Twitter to describe what they thought was a meteor.
However, the trail of light moved much too slowly to be a meteor (these typically whizz through the sky). So, another explanation was needed. And there is one!
The debris is almost certainly part of a Russian rocket, the SL-4, that launched on October 14. It launched the Progress cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), which docked yesterday, October 16.
Normally debris like this burns up in the upper atmosphere over an ocean. But this time it happened to combust near a populated area. It’s unclear if any of the debris has made it to the ground.
While the cause of the debris hasn’t been confirmed, US Strategic Command said the SL-4 had “re-entered the atmosphere Oct 16 2017 at 15:28 UTC.” That’s about the same local time in Abu Dhabi that the event was reported, just after sunset, making it clearly visible.
“The view was spectacular and last [sic] for almost 80 seconds,” the Dubai Astronomy Group said. They and others incorrectly labeled this as the Progress spacecraft itself, but that is still docked to the ISS.
“The trajectory of the debris was over Arabian Peninsula crossing UAE and Oman to finally over [the] Indian Ocean,” they added.
This isn't the first time debris has visibly fallen back to Earth. Perhaps the most famous is the 2011 re-entry of the Russian space station Mir. Pieces of the station were visible from Fiji and caught on camera as it burned up in the atmosphere.
In a few months, we may get an even more spectacular show, when China’s Tiangong-1 space station re-enters the atmosphere. Current predictions say it could burn up over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so it might not be visible. But maybe we'll get a bit of a show somewhere.