Last night, people in the US reported seeing a fireball across the night sky, visible across several states including California, Utah, and Nevada.
Some stunning video footage captured the moment at around 12.40am EDT (5.40am BST), which initially had people questioning what they were seeing. It was later confirmed, though, that this was part of a Chinese rocket that launched last month burning up in the atmosphere.
Specifically, it was the second stage of China’s new Long March 7 rocket, which launched on June 25. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told IFLScience that it had been “left it in orbit to undergo natural, uncontrolled, orbital decay.” It is thought to have measured about 36 feet (11 meters) long and 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide, and weighed about 6 metric tons (6.6 US tons).
Matt Holt from Utah County, Utah captured this footage last night
According to the Associated Press, US Strategic Command confirmed that this was part of China’s CZ-7 rocket. The main purpose of the unmanned launch in June had been to take a scaled-down version of China's new crew vehicle into orbit, which safely returned to Earth in Inner Mongolia after a short flight.
"I'm surprised the Long March 7 [stayed in orbit so long after launching]," McDowell added. "Perhaps it was meant to [de-orbit earlier] and failed – we'll have to wait and see what future flights of the Long March 7 do. It's next flight [in 2017] will be testing a new refuelling ship (Tianzhou) for the next Chinese space station."
It’s unclear if any of the debris made it to the ground, although there have been no reports to that effect so far. It also wasn’t the only re-entry this year; McDowell said on Twitter that there had been 25 re-entries in 2016 measuring 1 ton or more, although heavier objects like this weighing more than 5 tons are rare.