Incoming Space Junk Caused a Dramatic Light Show Over Australia Last Night

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Video of the fireball taken near Portland, Victoria, Australia.
Gif: Mel Aldrige/Victorian Storm Chasers/Gizmodo

Incredible video taken last night in Australia shows what was likely the late-stage of a Russian rocket burning up on re-entry, in a light show that was seen across the southeast portions of the country.

Australians living in parts of Victoria and Tasmania were treated to a remarkable spectacle last night, as a fireball soared across the Australian sky. The provenance of the object has yet to be confirmed, but experts believe it to be the late-stage of a Russian rocket burning up on re-entry.

And indeed, Russia successfully launched a Soyuz-2.1b rocket carrying an EKS 4 military satellite earlier in the day from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome north of Moscow.


The Guardian reports that the blazing fireball and its long tail could be seen from the Victorian towns of Rochester, Kyneton, Echuca, and Cashmore, with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) saying it was also seen in parts of Tasmania.


Videos of the event, which lasted for a generous 20 seconds, soon appeared on the internet, including a stunning view captured by Australian resident Mel Aldridge and posted to the Victorian Storm Chasers Facebook Page. Comments posted to this page suggest the fireball appeared around 6:15 p.m. Melbourne time.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, described the event as a special case, but he’s fairly certain it was the discarded third stage from the Russian rocket launch.


“The Russians launched a Soyuz rocket with a Kosmos satellite on it at 07:31 GMT. The third stage of the four-stage rocket was placed in a barely-suborbital trajectory with impact just south of Tasmania,” McDowell told Gizmodo. “So that’s what people saw—the discarded third stage on its way to crash in the ocean. Not an uncontrolled reentry like the Chinese rocket, but a carefully targeted trajectory. Very unusual, though, that the target reentry corridor began so close to shore.”


“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,” astronomer Perry Vlahos told Guardian Australia. Speaking to ABC, astrophysicist Jonti Horner said the object’s slow speed, “about 6 kilometers per second, is a very telltale sign that it is space junk,” either the Russian late-stage rocket or a small satellite.

Speaking to The Guardian, Vlahos said the entire structure likely disintegrated in the atmosphere, but Horner told ABC it’s possible that small bits of debris hit the ground.