The mystery behind a fireball that recently caused a social media uproar has likely been solved. Astronomers investigating the incident believe it was a harmless piece of space junk from Elon Musk’s satellite program.
On Wednesday, Sept. 14, the UK Meteor Network spotted the phenomenon over the skies of Scottland, Northern Ireland, and Northern England just after 10 pm. The network received nearly 800 reports on the matter. It caused both concern and excitement because it was visible for 20 seconds, which is unheard of for shooting stars. So people wanted answers.
And an answer came quicker than expected. John Maclean, an astronomer with the network, announced this morning that the fireball was a Starlink satellite that fell back into Earth’s atmosphere a day earlier than expected.
“What we’re looking at at the moment is a Starlink satellite, which was actually due to deorbit or reenter atmosphere today, but it is possible it could have deorbited slightly early,” he said.
Elon Musk currently has thousands of Starlink satellites orbiting Earth that give customers access to the internet. Those satellites only survive in space for up to five years at which point they drop back to the planet. However, instead of crashing on land or in water, they are designed to disintegrate when they hit Earth’s atmosphere —causing a fireball.
“Most meteors enter the atmosphere between around 75,000 and 80,000 mph,” he continued to further prove his point,” whereas space junk is slower at 25,000 to 30,000 mph. As a result, space junk is visible across the sky for much longer. A meteor would be a matter of a few seconds, whereas this was visible for 20 seconds. That’s too slow for a meteor.”
“And if you look at the videos, the way it breaks up is more consistent with a piece of space debris,” Maclean added. “Meteors do break up when they come through the atmosphere, but usually near the end of their trajectory. This was breaking up much higher.”
Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellites Will Continue to Cause Fireballs
Furthermore, John Maclean wants people to know that these sightings will become more frequent in the coming years.
In September 2021, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs counted approximately 7,500 satellites orbiting Earth. Some of those objects remain from the earliest launches starting in 1957. But Maclean said that that number will soon jump to an “excess of 40,000” within a few short years. And the de-orbiting crafts will “cause great problems for astronomers.”
“I would certainly think we are likely to see more of these fireballs given the number of satellites that Musk, and others, including Amazon, are putting up,” he said.