Tuesday 21 March 2023

Spectacular fireball over California as communications package from International Space Station falls to Earth.

Witnesses across much of California, as well as parts of Oregon and Nevada, have reported observing a bright fireball slightly before 9.35 pm local time on Friday 17 March 2023 (slightly before 4.35 am on Saturday 18 March GMT). The fireball is described as having moved from northwest to Southeast, entering the atmosphere to the east of Durham and disappearing somewhere to the south of Lake Tahoe. A fireball is defined as a meteor (shooting star) brighter than the planet Venus. These are typically caused by pieces of rock burning up in the atmosphere, but can be the result of man-made space-junk burning up on re-entry as is believed to have been the case on this occasion.

Fireball over Elk Grove, California, on 18 March 2023. American Meteor Society.

The fireball is thought to have been caused by the remains of a communications package formerly attached to the International Space Station, which was predicted to enter the atmosphere over California on the evening of 17 March 2023.- The package, ICF-EF was attached to the Japanese Kibō Module of the International Space Station in 2008, and kept that module in contact with the Japan Space Agency's Mission Control in Tsukuba via the Kodama communications satellite. The package was decommissioned in 2020, when it was removed by the space station's robot arm, and launched back towards Earth on a decaying orbit which ended on 17 March.

The ICF-EF package attached to the Kibō Module of the International Space Station in 2011. NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

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