In the early hours of October 20, a fireball lit up the skies of the Midwest.
Immediately, people started speculating about what the mystery light could have been. Was it a meteor, perhaps – maybe a stray from this month’s Orionid shower? Or maybe it was a classified Russian spy satellite that had failed from orbit and was now crashing back to Earth. Most exciting of all – maybe it was aliens.
Well, one of those is correct: according to astronomers, it was most likely the spy satellite.
“The fireball network confirms that the event seen in Michigan was at 0443 UTC (1243EDT) which is the exact predicted time [Russian satellite] Kosmos-2551 passed over the region, and within the reentry time uncertainty window given by Space Force,” reasoned Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. “So I conclude that the ID with Kosmos-2551 is solid.”
Kosmos-2551 was a classified military reconnaissance satellite launched on September 9 from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome. While Russian officials gave few details of the spacecraft, they did announce the launch and satellite deployment to be a success, the New York Times reports.
However, shortly after the satellite reached space, things started to go wrong. Instead of reaching orbit, satellite trackers watched KOSMOS-2551 gradually descend back to Earth.
“Ninety-nine percent certainty it was a failure,” McDowell told the New York Times. Russian defense officials have so far declined to comment.
While the satellite’s re-entry into the atmosphere certainly looked impressive, it most likely didn’t threaten any onlookers on land, McDowell explained. At just 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) – about the same as a dromedary camel, or a grand piano – KOSMOS-2551 almost certainly burned up in the atmosphere.
“No debris is expected to hit the ground,” McDowell tweeted not long after the fireball was seen.
The spectacular light shows seen when spacecraft crash back home are far from rare – speaking to the New York Times, McDowell recalled “a couple times in the past five years or so, off the top of [his] head” where Russian satellites had re-entered the atmosphere over the US. And thanks to humanity’s increasing tendency to launch stuff into space, these events are only going to get more frequent.
“As more goes up, more will come down,” amateur meteorite hunter Mike Hankey told the New York Times, speaking about recent cases of space debris causing pyrotechnic sky shows. Hankey manages the American Meteor Society’s fireball database, where more than 150 reports and photos of Wednesday’s fireball were submitted by eager sky watchers.
“It is not really my favorite thing to work on,” he added, “but it is happening a lot more and the system can track it well.”