Over the weekend, footage of bright, flashing streaks of light that blazed across the sky over Sacramento, California, went viral, with most people wondering whether it was a meteor or a UFO. As it turns out, it was neither. Instead, the mysterious objects ended up being some fallen space junk that was once attached to the International Space Station (ISS).
On Friday, people in Sacramento were treated to the rare sight of roughly ten fireballs flying overhead in the skies. The traveling fireworks were even captured by 2000's RnB singer Ashanti, who posted a video on Instagram with the caption, “We saw this in the middle of filming out here in Sacramento!!! WTFFFFF.” Another video, shown below and captured by Instagram user kingcongbrewing, showed the spectacle in vivid detail.
Commenters on the video warned it was the end of times, but fear not, Ashanti, because the mystery has been solved. Shortly after the videos circulated online, Jonathan McDowell, astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, took to Twitter to explain the origin of the bright streaks.
As it turns out, the fireballs were caused by a piece of space debris that burned up as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere. The space debris in question was likely a Japanese communications antenna that launched to the ISS in 2009 and relayed information between the station’s Kibo module and ground control. The communications antenna, known as the Inter-orbit Communications System - Exposed Facility, weighed about 680 pounds (310 kilograms).
The antenna wrapped up its mission in 2017 and was discarded in 2020 when Canadarm, a giant robotic arm outside the ISS, grabbed it and flung it into orbit so that it can burn up in the atmosphere. For the past three years, the communications antenna was floating around Earth, slowly lowering its orbit over time before it finally met its fiery demise. “It probably almost completely burnt up during reentry, but any small surviving debris may have, at a guess, reached the Yosemite area,” McDowell wrote on Twitter.
We should get used to seeing those bright streaks across the skies more often as more rocket bodies, satellites, spacecraft—and apparently antennas—are launched into Earth orbit, increasing the chances of creating space junk that eventually fall back through the atmosphere. And when they do, they inevitably tend to stir up alien enthusiasts and doomsayers alike.
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