A dramatic streak of light flashed across the night skies over Australia on Friday evening. The impromptu light show sparked quite a lot of attention online, but this was not any ordinary meteor (nor a UFO sighting). As many experts have since pointed out, the zipping fireball was a piece of space junk flung from a Russian rocket as it crashed down to Earth.
The event was spotted by numerous sky gazers and residents of Victoria and northern Tasmania on Friday evening just after dusk. Numerous videos posted across social media show a slowly moving trail of light gradually crossing the night sky. One of the most speculator pieces of footage was shared by the Melbourne-based Victorian Storm Chasers (video below) who posted a 30-second clip of the light filmed by Melissa Aldridge in Cashmore near Portland.
“Everyone calm down. It's just Optimus Prime and the rest of the autobots coming to help bumblebee,” one person commented on the video.
"After everything else that's gone down this year so far, I wouldn't be surprised if it is triffids," another joked.
While they initially noted it was a meteor, they quickly updated the post to say: “We are getting reports that this may have been a Russian space launch.”
Perry Vlahos, vice-president of the Astronomical Society of Victoria, told Guardian Australia: “The fact it was slow-moving and at a shallow angle, and an amount of disintegration was occurring, gave it away it was not an alien spacecraft, a meteor or comet.”
“It’s a late-stage Russian rocket,” he added. “So that spent rocket stage has re-entered the atmosphere.”
Russia launched a Soyuz-2-1b rocket from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome at about 10:31 Moscow Time (07:31 UTC or 17:30 Melbourne time) to deliver a Tundra No.4 satellite in orbit, according to NASA Space Flight. The satellite, which contains an infrared telescope to detect heat sources, will be used by the Kremlin as part of their early-warning missile defense system.
Vlahos said that he believes the debris totally disintegrated as it burned up in the atmosphere, so there is no risk of red hot space junk crashing down to Earth. On the other hand, Jonti Horner, a professor of Astrophysics at the University of Southern Queensland, told ABC News there was a chance some small pieces of the rocket might make it to the ground, although he agreed most of the debris likely disintegrated.
Australia is no stranger to unusual stories involving space junk. In July 1979, the world watched on as America's first manned space station, Skylab, uncontrollably fell back to Earth, scattering debris across the Indian Ocean, South Atlantic, and Western Australia. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the incident did result in an official apology from President Jimmy Carter and a rather hilarious story involving a littering fine.