Something crossed the night skies of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana on Wednesday before dawn. The fireball burned in hues of green, gold and pink, leaving a luminous trail in its wake. It spent about two minutes shattering into small pieces as it descended from orbit before crossing the border into the United States and Canada, somewhere over the Great Lakes.
“I saw it cross the sky,” said Stephanie Neal, a resident of Williamsburg, Ohio, who saw the object. “He had no tail first, then a tail, then no tail.”
“It was amazing,” said another witness in Batavia, Ohio, in a report to the American Meteor Society, which maintains a helpline where people can point out the fireballs they see in the sky, which are usually rocks that shatter in Earth’s atmosphere. “Mainly because we have a full moon tonight and yet it was still so bright and visible.”
It was not an unexplained aerial phenomenon, as the Pentagon describes UFOs these days, nor even a meteor from the Orionid rain, which peaked early Thursday morning.
Instead, it was likely a recently launched Russian military satellite that had shown signs of failure, according to orbital trackers, before plunging into Earth’s atmosphere and igniting.
The classified Russian spacecraft, identified by a US Space Command database as COSMOS 2551, was launched on September 9 from the Russian Plesetsk Cosmodrome, about 500 miles north of Moscow.
Few details of the satellite were recognized by the Russian military, but it was heading in an orbital path above the Earth’s poles. The Russian Defense Ministry said the launch and deployment of the satellite was successful.
But almost immediately after reaching space, satellite trackers noticed a gradual descent in the spacecraft’s altitude.
“99% sure it was a failure,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks orbiting objects and closely monitors the Russian satellite.
The satellite likely burned in the atmosphere without making landfall, Dr McDowell said.
“Russian satellite re-entries over the United States happen every now and then – maybe a few times over the past five years or so, off the top of my head. “
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Sky watchers have witnessed other major uncontrolled re-entries of ancient or stray spacecraft this year. Sometimes objects associated with launches survive return to the surface, such as a pressurized container of part of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket that crashed in a man’s farm in Washington in April. Then, in May, large pieces of debris from a Chinese rocket splashed in the waters off the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
It was not known where exactly the pieces of the Chinese rocket, a Long March 5B, would enter Earth’s atmosphere. This renewed uncertainty calls for more specific international rules governing space activities. NASA administrator Bill Nelson criticized China at the time, saying Beijing “was not meeting accountability standards for their space debris.”
While a 1972 United Nations treaty made nations liable for damage caused by objects launched from their territories, there are few international rules limiting conditions in space that could create damage, such as a dead spacecraft that falls back into the atmosphere. In recent years, U.S. officials have called for new traffic rules to accommodate an increasingly busy orbital highway as many companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, aim to send thousands of internet satellites to low earth orbit.
“The more it goes up, the more it goes down,” said Mike Hankey, an amateur meteor hunter who maintains the American Meteor Society’s fireball database, of recent cases of space debris causing fireworks displays in the sky. “It’s not really my favorite thing to work on, but it happens a lot more and the system can keep up with it.”