Unidentified Fiery Object
The skies above Northern California were alight with streaks of flame, burning across the blue-gray of an impending night.
On Friday evening, residents of Sacramento were treated to an abrupt light show as shards of mysterious matter came careening through our atmosphere.
Naturally, the striking display incited equal parts bewilderment, wonder, and conspiratorial brainstorming. Had some ET's ride tragically disintegrated, or were we simply being bombarded by a barrage of meteors?
— Aaron Gleason (@aye_ay_ron) March 18, 2023
A mesmerizing display of lights over Northern California on Friday was caused by the re-entry of flaming space debris into Earth’s atmosphere, experts said. The chunks of communications equipment had been jettisoned from the International Space Station. https://t.co/CrZkdV5YSU pic.twitter.com/Zz0IkDcb8j
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 19, 2023
Unfortunately for those with a rampant imagination, the spectacle wasn't an episode of "The X-Files" mythology unfolding before us. In reality, it was just space junk re-entering the atmosphere, and while not necessarily quite as exciting, it does show that sometimes the mundane can produce unexpected moments of profound beauty.
According to Jonathan McDowell, a renowned astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the junk originates from the International Space Station, where it was ejected as a piece of defunct communications equipment back in 2020.
"What you're seeing is some actually very small objects releasing a lot of energy, very high up, traveling extremely fast," McDowell told The New York Times.
Called the ICS-EF, the communications package had to be heaved off using the Canadarm-2 robot arm due to its unwieldy mass of over 700 pounds, after which "it orbited Earth as space junk for three years, and reentered [9:30 PDT] over California," McDowell explained in a Twitter thread.
"It probably almost completely burnt up during reentry, but any small surviving debris may have, at a guess, reached the Yosemite area," he added.
This is ICS-EF, a Japanese communications package for sending data between the ISS Kibo module and Mission Control Tsukuba via the Kodama data relay satellite. It was launched to the ISS on the Space Shuttle in 2009 and had a mass of 310 kg. pic.twitter.com/ygzHdmfQc0
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 18, 2023
This is actually a fairly regular occurrence, McDowell said — as in large discarded equipment eventually returning as junk for a spectacular descent through our atmosphere — but can often go unnoticed or appear novel due to the irregularity of where it occurs.
"They don't happen very often over any one given place, so it's always new to the people who see it," McDowell told NYT.
"For me, it's just another Tuesday," he said.
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