VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A lot of people in the Vancouver and Seattle areas witnessed pieces of a SpaceX rocket burning up on reentry, with light streaking across the night sky Thursday.
A number of experts in the field say this appears to have been the cause of the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket breaking up — which is supposed to happen.
The Falcon 9 “failed to make a deorbit burn,” and reentered the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now reentering after 22 days in orbit. Its reentry was observed from the Seattle area at about 0400 UTC Mar 26. pic.twitter.com/FQrBrUoBHh
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 26, 2021
The result was a spectacular light display that took over the sky above the Pacific Northwest, and flooding social media.
“The entry speed is so great that the material that it’s made out of becomes luminous so it is basically burning up,” says Bill Burnyeat, community astronomer for Canadian Planetariums.
“So the pressure is so intense that even component is made out of metal will glow incandescent and burn up. So it’s very bright because it’s actually luminous and burning.”
— Dan Wright (@DanWrig42391786) March 26, 2021
Burnyeat explains what it means that the rocket failed to make a “deorbit burn.”
“Basically, if an object is in orbit around the Earth, it doesn’t need any propellant or anything to keep going around the Earth, it’ll just go around and around and around. So the deorbit meant that the engine had to fire in order for it to reenter safely, and then go to its touchdown point. But because of some glitch or mix up or some failure of some component, it didn’t do that,” he says.
“It’s kind of like if you had a car that was moving in a parking lot but there was no one driving and the car was just driving around and around randomly, then eventually would hit something. So it hit the Earth’s atmosphere and came tumbling down, and the many pieces of it were burning up and that is what people saw, and that’s what they photographed and that’s what people were excited about.”
There’s no danger to anyone on the ground, although some tiny fragments may make it to the Earth’s surface, according to Burnyeat.
“Most it will burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere so there’s no real danger of it falling on someone’s head,” he says.
“Don’t be alarmed that something is going to come crashing through your roof or anything like that. The action is all up in the sky, and it’s basically a light show for us.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the Falcon 9 was not supposed to land.