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Rockets? Meteors? What caused SoCal mystery lights

Over the past few weeks, a number of celestial phenomena have baffled and delighted Southern Californians.

Early Tuesday morning, night owls spotted streaks of light in the sky, with some speculating the event could be linked to the SpaceX satellite launch Monday evening from Vandenberg Space Base. Another SpaceX launch a few weeks earlier caused a stir with its eye-catching light trail and contrail.

The real cause, however, was less obvious and came from further afield. It was Chinese space junk.

Although many assumed more mysterious sources — aliens, spy drones, unanticipated meteors — what onlookers saw at 1:40 a.m. was the “expected re-entry of the Shenzhou 15 orbital module,” said Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell. written the.

Indeed, the American Meteor Society reported 85 re-entry sightings from Sacramento to San Diego, with most concentrated in the Los Angeles area.

On average, one piece of space debris falls into Earth’s atmosphere every day, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA estimates that there are more than 170 million pieces of space debris flying around Earth, posing potential dangers to active satellites and a low risk to humans on the ground as well.

“Although space debris is rarely a concern for humans on Earth, our satellites in the sky often need to avoid their dangerous trajectory,” according to NOAA.

However, debris usually causes nothing other than a dazzling visual display.

Last March, Californians were treated to a light show as debris from the International Space Station burned up in our atmosphere.

In November 2022, three astronauts rode the Shenzhou 15 spacecraft to the Tiangong space station, abandoning the orbital module that would eventually return to Earth on Tuesday, according to Space.com.

After a six-month stay, the crew landed safely in the Gobi Desert in June. The orbital module that carried them into space continued to orbit Earth, coming closer and closer to its destruction.

California Daily Newspapers

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